Tuesday, 1 April 2008

A Creative Manifesto for a Welsh Renaissance

The following is a transcript of a talk I gave at The Laugharne Weekend:

I’ve managed to steer clear of politics for more than 30 years. A year spent as the president of the student’s union at Hornsey College of Art in the mid-seventies was enough to put me off participation in politics for the rest of my life. The conflicting ideologies of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist League - later known as the Militant Tendency, and the Broad Left - an anti-Trotskyist alliance of just about everybody else of a red-hued persuasion including a group calling itself ‘Operation Icepick’, destroyed my independent socialist ideals as completely as the Spanish Civil War did for those of George Orwell.

My personal war of conscience was also fought in a far off country, on the streets of East London in fact, against the boot boys of the National Front. While most of my NUS comrades were arguing over the exact form of words to be used in letters expressing our solidarity with political prisoners in Chile, I was charging around Hackney exchanging blows with racist skinheads. In retrospect, my direct action was as effective as their interminable points of order yet several of my contemporaries are or have recently been cabinet ministers while I am just an apolitical writer and designer of T-shirts. (My label, The Red Dragonhood, produced the Laugharne Weekend official T-shirts.)

I wouldn’t want you to think I haven’t voted in the last 30 years. I’ve voted Labour at every election since I was 18, until the one that swept Tony Blair to power in 1997. Unfortunately this doesn’t excuse my share of responsibility for the damage Blair did to our society because I would have voted for him had I not been working in New York at the time. But since it became apparent that Blair’s pragmatism amounted to selling out on any principle for a donation to party funds, my only option has been to spoil my ballot paper or vote for an independent, both choices having the same effect in our excuse for a democracy – other than in Blaenau Gwent, of course.

I really just want to concentrate on my work, probably like most other creative types, secure in the knowledge that people dedicated to improving the lives of their fellow citizens are taking care of the business of politics as best they can. I’d like to let them get on with it. But the current crop of politicians at Westminster - the majority of whom seem to consider a PPE degree (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) as appropriate vocational training for managing the welfare of 60 million human beings - seem more intent on milking their positions of trust for personal gain and pursuing policies designed primarily to perpetuate their privileges while obfuscating issues that might damage their popularity. They are eager to represent the interests of the businessmen who fund and disseminate their deceitful propaganda while disenfranchising those sections of society that market research suggests won’t bolster their position.

Supported by a vast, hugely expensive army of management consultants, middle class people very much like themselves – Ian Davis, the managing director of McKinsey & Co, for example, has a PPE degree - they do politics in the easiest way possible; stupidly, by numbers, not by the impact on quality of life. It’s easier to privatise public services, handing responsibility to greedy capitalists, than to manage them; it’s easier to control behaviour through financial penalties than through education, and it is easier to spin lies and half truths through a voracious media dominated by Rupert Murdoch, who also has a PPE degree as it happens.

The economy is everything to this government and would be to the Tories. Revenue from taxation is its holy grail yet the treasury is scared to tax the rich appropriately for fear of disturbing the status quo. Unbelievably, a ‘Labour’ government recently proposed to evict people who claim incapacity benefit from council houses unless they get a job within a certain time period. This is the same government that is closing Remploy factories that provide work for skilled disabled people on the basis that they are not profitable.

It’s entirely likely that Labour is targeting benefit claimants to make political capital out of them before the Tories can. Last week’s Wales on Sunday ran a front-page story helpfully provided by the Conservatives, with the headline ‘Revealed: How Welsh live on handouts’. Needless to say, the story failed to reveal evidence that the Welsh live on handouts at all, although it did highlight parts of Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Rhondda Cynon Taff where the majority are out of work and claiming benefits because a Conservative government closed the mines and the steelworks, and a Labour government has singularly failed to create any meaningful alternative employment. The psychological damage done by the state to people in these areas will not be resolved by using them as a political football. And it is wicked to suggest that immigrants have no problem finding work in places where the existing population have been crushed and broken by the powers that be.

New Labour needs management consultants because after three terms in government it has no original thinking left. Market research and opinion polls guide its every move. Statistics are so grotesquely manipulated that it is practically impossible to believe anything you see or hear. For example, prisons are full to overflowing when crime is supposedly down. One statistic is employed to prove the need to build new super-prisons while the opposite is used to show that Labour is doing a sound job.

For another example, the government insists on maintaining an annual inflation target of 2% to dictate public sector pay settlements, yet the rate of inflation for the basket of items typically bought by people on an average public sector worker’s pay is actually more like 15%. In the last year, electricity and gas prices went up by around 20%. Fuel prices also went up by around 20%. Food prices went up by about 13%, and this trend will be made worse by the ludicrous policy of shifting land from food production to bio fuels. But it’s not all bad news. Wide screen televisions went down by 28% and helped reduce the overall inflation figure to a point that makes the government look almost competent.

‘Where do they get their energy from?’ Well, EDF is an abbreviation of √Člectricit√© de France, one of Europe’s largest electricity generators, 70% owned by the French government. E:ON is an even larger German company. So, other people’s governments now run our utilities and they’re lining up to buy our sports clubs too. Dubai, for example, a theme park in the Middle East owned by a repressive potentate, is negotiating to buy Liverpool FC, North Wales’s Barcelona, from a pair of American carpetbaggers whose only strategy has been to bleed the fans dry to repay the loans they took out to buy the club in the first place. Meanwhile, the mineral wealth of Russia is being squandered on a penis extension known as Chelsea Football Club and the toil of Russian miners and steelworkers is being harnessed to buy Arsenal. Everything seems to be for sale to anyone with the money, no matter where it came from.

Globalisation has caused a large part of our manufacturing industry to move to China because multi-national businesses make more money by exploiting poor Chinese people than they do by exploiting poor Welsh people. Perhaps the most cynical Welsh political event of last year was the exploitation by Welsh Labour politicians of the plight of the Burberry workers in Treorchy to boost their Assembly election campaign. This was while their party was encouraging businesses like Burberry to embrace globalisation.

One of the advantages of this strategy, if ‘strategy’ is the right word, is that it makes it easier for the government to get closer to its ludicrously miscalculated emission reduction targets, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution being of a similar priority to human rights in the People’s Republic of China which, by ignoring such niceties, will soon overtake America to become the world’s dominant superpower.

Ridiculously high property prices are also adding to the decimation of our society. The average price of a house in Britain is now £222,000 - ten times the average annual household income of £22,000. Some of the interest paid on mortgages by borrowers who can barely afford the repayments finds its way to city bonuses, which are often used to buy investment property. This restricts housing supply still further and adds to inflationary pressures. The government does nothing to prevent ordinary people having their homes repossessed when they default on loans, but it bails out the city institutions that speculated on lending money to people who would not be able afford the repayments.

Spurred on by the magnificent example of Prince Charles, who recently bought a hovel in Myddfai to convert into holiday lets, the prettiest Welsh villages long ago turned into upmarket holiday camps. Local schools, pubs, shops and post offices have all been forced to close since these places now resemble ghost towns outside a few weeks during the summer. An entire way of life has died along with the communities.

Then there’s public transport; parcelled up for avaricious corporations to milk our need to get to and from our places of work ensuring, as far as Wales is concerned, ever higher prices with ever lower standards of reliability, punctuality and comfort. Since fewer people actually live in the countryside, there is no longer any requirement to provide less profitable rural public transport. As a result of this policy, it is impossible to have any kind of effective national transport strategy and it is impossible to get people out of their cars to reduce the emissions that are leading to runaway climate change.

Free public services of every kind have either gone or been replaced by privatised schemes where there’s a profit to be made. Although the provision is actually better in Wales than in England, the disappearance of public toilets is a particularly noticeable example. Yet the tax burden, especially for the poor, has increased. Labour in Wales might have made prescriptions free but only people on above average income can afford to get their teeth fixed.

Worse than any of this is the obscenity of sending poor young men and women to kill poor Iraqis and Afghans because Tony Blair’s god told him to do it. 2 million people marched through the streets of London to protest against the war but the majority of Welsh Labour MPs ignored them and voted for war anyway. Needless to say, their children won’t be going to fight. That march was the point at which the ethos of mass public protest finally collapsed in Britain. The politicians then passed a law to stop the public lobbying parliament on the grounds of a threat to national security.

I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist but it seems to me that we are being kept in a placid state by an Orwellian climate of fear, albeit one that may have come about as much by government ineptitude and lack of foresight as by design: fear of terrorism; fear of losing our jobs; fear of crime; fear of paedophiles stalking our children; fear of climate change; fear of identity theft; fear of not being able to pay our mortgages; fear that someone might undercut us or, even worse, cut us up.

We’re mollified by every imaginable retail opportunity and the security of knowing our every move is being watched on CCTV. Then there’s our government’s straight-faced assertion that, despite building new runways at Heathrow and coal fired power stations and running gas pipelines through our countryside to channel the vast quantities of natural gas being shipped all the way from Qatar, it is taking a ‘global leadership position’ in combating runaway climate change. It’s a relief to know that, don’t you think?

This probably explains why our society seems increasingly dysfunctional. I might even go as far as Derrick Jenson, the author of End Game, and say that our society has become psychotic, out of touch with reality, since it appears to be unsustainable. We seem to be powerless as individuals. There appears to be little hope, as far as ordinary people are concerned, of bringing about any meaningful change.

Yet we’re supposed to have a remedy. It’s called the ballot box. But when the system is rigged to ensure that the status quo is maintained, there is not much point in voting. Voter apathy suits Labour and the Tories since they would prefer us not to vote unless we intend to vote for them. Are the Tories likely to improve our quality of life in Wales? The preponderance of Old Etonians and Old Harrovians amongst their leadership suggests they’re are unlikely to prove more compassionate and forward thinking than New Labour. History certainly suggests otherwise.

While this is going on around me, I can’t concentrate. ‘If you tolerate this, then your children will be next’, the Manic Street Preachers once said prophetically. I have three children.

So, it’s come to this. I believe we need a radical overhaul of both our political and economic systems. I think we need to approach the problems we face in an entirely different way, measuring success against quality of life targets as well as economic targets, and making decisions free of commercial influence and political dogma.

Opinion polls suggest that if an election were to be held today, there would be a Conservative government in power at Westminster tomorrow, a government that would be unrepresentative of the views of the majority of people in Wales. Setting aside the current swing in sentiment, England, with it’s population of 50 million people and large middle class, is divided upon lines that favour the Conservative party.

I’ll be positive in a minute, I promise, but first I want to mention a pamphlet entitled ‘Re-balancing the Welsh Economy’ because it is inversely apposite to my argument. The pamphlet was published two weeks ago by a Labour pressure group called Wales 20:20 - ‘Welsh politics. Done differently’, an organisation committed to ‘winning the battle of ideas on Wales’s future’. It was written by a backbench MP called… Peter Hain.

I’m not going to rake over the muck that Hain’s unfettered ambition and lack of judgement have planted him in, other than to point out that people might enter our political system with high ideals but invariably end up grovelling to multi-millionaires. It is now alleged that as well as accidentally not declaring donations made through a non-functioning ‘think tank’ by unsavoury characters such as Isaac Kaye, a former supporter of apartheid - the heinous South African political system Hain made his name campaigning against - he has also been paying his 80 year old mother a Commons salary of £5,400 per year (just below the minimum tax threshold).

Hain was a junior minister in the Welsh Office between 1997 and 1999 before, as Secretary of State, he became the de facto governor of Wales until his resignation earlier this year. He should know his stuff.

Hain’s main solution is to increase the size of the private sector in Wales although he does not spell out how this might be achieved. He says we need to work harder although he makes a point of stressing that we should not try to compete with the 60p per hour labour costs of India and China. He says we must cut benefits and get claimants out to work because work would do them good. He says we must be cleverer and he mentions the supposed success of the Techniums as an example. Unfortunately the Dragon International Film Studios that he holds up as another success story went bust last week, before the facility could be completed.
He says we need to develop a can do attitude. Above all, he says, we must ‘compete’. He warns that competing is ‘vital to our survival’ although he offers no specific plan for achieving his objectives.

Nevertheless, there are a number of points in this pamphlet with which I agree, although the notion of trying to compete with China and India, two nations that, as Hain points out himself, turn out more than 5 million graduates per year - almost twice the entire population of Wales - seems utterly pointless. Competition results in losers and well as winners. Competition favours the rich and enslaves the poor, lessons that Wales knows only too well. Hain goes on to mention that 150 years ago Merthyr Tydfil was the most technologically advanced town in the world. He says we need a new Merthyr Tydfil. I bet the inhabitants of Merthyr Tydfil would welcome a new Merthyr Tydfil but Labour is actually more interested in building new eco towns.

I think we need to cooperate and collaborate more than we need to compete, firstly amongst ourselves and then in an international economic context. Hain proposes that we ‘play to our strengths’ but he doesn’t seem to know what our strengths actually are.

I’d suggest that creativity is certainly one of our strengths, as exemplified by our bardic traditions - by the eisteddfodau and ‘Cool Cymru’ and, indeed, by this Laugharne Weekend. Given the nature of this event, I’m going to restrict myself to aiming today’s message at the creative community.

In creativity we punch well above our weight as a small country. Yet we’ve been unable to develop our creative talent at home. With the advent of the Internet, writers have found it easier to live and work in Wales than they once did but it is still the case that designers who want to work at the top of their game have to move to London and Welsh bands still need to woo London A&R men etc, etc.

As I know from my time trying to whip up activists in an art college student’s union, creative people generally have little interest in politics. They tend not to seek power and, with a few exceptions, do not have an overbearing interest in money either. It is for these reasons that creative people might take a lead in regenerating the Welsh economy, not by trying to become business people but by building a society that thrives upon collaboration not competition, that places culture at its heart and that operates on a radically different economic model.

To stimulate a creative renaissance in Wales, I’d like to propose the building of a number of institutions throughout the country; let’s call them ‘Casgliad’, the Welsh word for ‘gathering’ (the plural, therefore, being ‘Casgliadau’) where writers, artists, designers, architects, photographers, craftspeople, inventors, engineers and musicians would go to work. Ranged around the facility would be publishers, web developers, IT specialists, printers, workshops, model makers, foundries, template cutters, prototype makers etc.

The Casgliadau would function like the Techniums, which in theory provide support to embryonic scientific businesses in Wales. They would be places where creative people would have the time, space and resources to develop their talents in a stimulating, collaborative and rewarding environment. Each establishment would be like a cross between a college, a light industrial unit and serviced offices.

Writers and designers would have workspaces while artists would occupy studios. Photographers would have access to darkrooms and engineers would have the use of fully equipped workshops. Potters would have access to throwing studios, glazing booths and kilns. Musicians would have access to recording studios and equipment such as PA systems. (I do know that the Pop Factory was supposed to provide this kind of service.) Musicians would be encouraged to collaborate with designers, photographers and web developers to help disseminate their work.

Admission would be based upon qualitative considerations and by commitment to the aims of the creative community. The members of the Casgliad would approve new members with representatives elected to the management board, although the facility itself would be professionally managed. Societies within the institution would provide mutual support for individual disciplines with more experienced practitioners helping to bring out the talents of the less experienced. The result of building such establishments would be an explosion of creativity throughout Wales.

Creative people generally have very low earnings potential, especially at an early stage in their careers, and very often have to forgo a creative career altogether in order to undertake more immediately lucrative types of work. I must admit things have improved since the establishment of the Welsh Assembly, especially with the development of the film and television industry, but it is still the case that Welsh creative people have to emigrate to find employment. The Casgliadau would be a means to end this creative drain and attract to Wales developing creative talent from around the world. The Casgliadau would begin to reverse the commercialisation of our culture by allowing ideas to flourish free of commercial considerations within a supportive creative community. Wales would very rapidly become one of the worlds leading centres for creative thinking, for literature, art and design. Much of the work produced here would have commercial applications that could be brought to market very quickly although this should not be the only consideration in judging the quality of output.

In return for attending a Casgliad, a creative person would receive payment in what is known as a ‘complimentary currency’. Let’s call this one, for the sake of simplicity, Y Punt Cymru (The Pound of Wales). Complimentary currency, as its name suggests, is currency that is designed to work alongside conventional money rather than in place of it. Although you use the Punt Cymru to buy things, it has features built into it that make it work differently to money. Firstly, and most importantly, it is not subject to interest, which has the effect of creating shortages in currency supply. Neither can it be horded since it diminishes in value if it is not used within a short period of receipt. It can’t be used in Asda or Tesco but it can be used in local shops and businesses – the butchers, for example, the local bakery, greengrocers, the market or the local pub.

The knock-on effect of a Casgliad to the local economy would be dramatic. Local businesses that accept the Punt Cymru as well as the Pound would begin to thrive again. Local producers of foodstuffs and suppliers of services would enjoy a stable market ring fenced from competition by major multiples, although supermarkets and large chain stores would still have a role to play in the conventional economy. This in turn would stimulate a significant increase in employment in Wales. The switch in emphasis from global sourcing to local sourcing for many products and services would have a beneficial effect on greenhouse gas emissions, as would the reduction in visits to out of town superstores.

Those attending a Casgliad would be required to enrol in a Time Exchange Trading System and spend at least one day a week providing services within the community to earn credits that may be spent on local services. For example, someone might spend half a day working in the local post office and half a day providing care for the elderly for time credits that they exchange for childcare. Another person might choose to do physical tasks such as maintenance work or home repairs in exchange for Welsh language lessons and time in the local health club. Such schemes are well established throughout the world and should work naturally within Welsh communities.

Finally, creative people working at a Casgliad who are able to generate mainstream currency – money - by offering their services commercially will not need further financial support from the state but those who cannot generate conventional income will receive a new class of ‘creative employment benefit’. Household bills, such as those for rent, communications and energy, as well as mortgage repayments will still be paid in mainstream currency in the short-term.

The model I propose would cost the state very little to implement while the benefits could be immense. I have spoken today to creative people but all of Welsh society could be reorganised along lines that are complimentary with our history and heritage.

These ideas are not without precedence. Similar schemes are working very successfully elsewhere in the world although perhaps not in the combination I have suggested today. If the Assembly Government were to actively champion these ideas there is no reason why they should not be extended throughout our society.

Widespread acceptance of the complimentary currency and Time Exchange Trading Scheme would reduce public expenditure and lead to lower taxes for all. Local businesses and services would become viable once again. The closure of local schools, shops, post offices and pubs would be curtailed. Communities would be strengthened and renewed. The elderly could be cared for in the community rather than in institutions. Childcare would no longer present a crippling financial burden to people who want to work. Confidence and pride would be restored. Society would become cohesive once again. New forms of employment would be created in areas that have been declining, such as in agriculture. Indeed, unemployment as we know it would be eradicated. Greenhouse gas emissions would be dramatically reduced and Wales would be able to contribute more than its fair share to combating runaway climate change. Financial insecurity would eventually become a thing of the past as we entered a period of what the economist Bernard Leitaer in his book The Future of Money, calls ‘sustainable abundance’.

But with our political system mired in corruption and self-interest we have little chance of achieving such an outcome. Our best hope is for Wales to break away from the UK because it is only by changing the status quo that we can have any hope of tackling the real issues that affect our quality of life. I’m not suggesting we stop working closely with England in many aspects of our lives. I’m not suggesting – and I’ll get this in before BNP and UKIP members accuse me of racism – that we seek to exclude anyone on the basis of their origin. But I am suggesting that the dominance of England, rather than English people, holds us back and causes us to be exploited whenever we have something of value. Where is the wealth that our coal created? Where is the money all the iron and steel produced? Where is the wealth from the factories that set up in the Valleys to claim development grants and exploit our low labour costs during the last decade? Nothing of value remains.

I believe we need to be internationalist in outlook but we need to organise ourselves on a local basis. Democracy really only exists in the village and politicians are only answerable on a local level. We should be able to remove them as easily as we can the coaches of our national rugby team when they don’t deliver.

Small countries with small populations succeed. Look at Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Luxembourg, small independent countries that have a much higher standard of living than we do. Countries where people express themselves to be happier, where crime and corruption are far lower and where societies are cohesive. Look at Ireland, just across the water.

Westminster is a level of government we don’t need because it is hard to manage 60 million people other than by numbers. There is no reason why power should be centralised. Responsibility for communities should be devolved right down to a local assembly level. A Welsh National Assembly of independent members that are elected nationally and not drawn from individual constituencies, no larger than the one we have now, supported by an expanded civil service, handling health, education, transport, energy, foreign policy and defence.

How will we get by without handouts from England? The truth is we don’t get handouts from England, that’s just a myth that politicians like Peter Hain trot out to keep us in our place, just like his dire warnings of ‘Balkanisation’ should Wales ever break away from the UK. What did he mean by that exactly? Was he suggesting we’d start ethnic cleansing? Obviously he was just trying to frighten us. Next time a politician speaks about handouts, ask to see the figures. But not government figures, obviously!

Hain’s document touches on some interesting points though, one of which being that Wales has an abundance of natural resources. Wind and rain are nowadays very valuable commodities. The proposed Severn barrier is believed capable of generating 5% of the UK’s entire energy needs. Were half of that to be added to the potential output that might be achieved by exploiting every off- and on-shore wind, tidal and wave generating opportunity then Wales might be capable of generating more than 15% of the UK’s energy needs from renewable sources. The population of Wales is less than 5% of the total UK population.

So, if Wales was independent and its energy resources were nationalised, free energy for all would be a realistic possibility with the surplus sold to the foreign-own private utility companies that service England.

The water supplied to private utilities in Birmingham and Liverpool from the dammed valleys in North Wales could also generate a huge amount of income, as could the transport of natural gas in pipelines across our territory.

So much revenue could be generated that we could afford, for example, to replace our entire housing stock, demolishing the poor quality dwellings in the Valleys and replacing them with architecturally uplifting, energy efficient, comfortable modern housing. Using cooperative-build timber framed construction; this could be achieved at a cost of around £10,000 for a three-bedroom house.

We could develop a free public transport network capable of reaching both the urban conurbations in the south and the rural settlements elsewhere. We could build a new capital in Machynlleth, the proper place to unite the different cultures of North and South. Such measures would create real employment for tens of thousands of people.

In short, without England, Wales could be rich. With the establishment of Casgliadau at least, Wales could become far richer in culture.