Theatre in Wales

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The Necessity of Opposition to Ecology

Summing It Up

The Public Sphere Under Constriction , the Culture of Wales , March 12, 2020
Summing It Up by The Public Sphere Under Constriction On 10th March the subject for debate at the Senedd was the situation at Cardiff Airport. The timing was after the collapse of FlyBe. Ken Skates opened with a clear declaration. In 2013 had the airport stayed within its previous management it would have closed. The leveraging impact is considerable: more than two thousand jobs, almost a quarter of a billion pounds' contribution to the GVA of Wales, thousands of supply chain jobs.

A line is revealing. “Deputy Llywydd, I welcome scrutiny. It is right and proper that the National Assembly scrutinises the Welsh Government. That it scrutinises our stewardship of public money. It is also right and proper that we debate the future of the airport. However, it is not right and proper to talk down the airport.”

In the debate Rhiannon Passmore uses the same phrase. “I also suggest that we do not talk Wales down...There is much talk in this Chamber about Wales becoming a mature nation in its own right as a member of the United Kingdom of the family of nations...The Welsh Labour Government will not shrink from standing up for Wales. It is time for all to stand up for Wales and to end the talking down of Wales.”

Nick Ramsay responds. “As Chair of the Public Accounts Committee we have no interest in talking Wales down...You are right to invest in the airport.” The debate continues in a manner that is dignified and lucid. It links to government ambitions for carbon reduction and locally owned energy providers. Russell George says that his first hope is that his party's amendment is seen as positive.

This is not a comment about individuals. Ministers have made their way to address public platforms in Aberystwyth. I have lobbed questions at First Ministers, met Assembly Members in supermarket car parks and book launches. The encounters with my last four Members of Parliament have been so numerous to be beyond counting. They include several hours spent within the Palace of Westminster. Not once have I doubted the diligence, commitment or sense of public service of any.

But culture transcends the individual. Indeed it is never so powerful as when it acts invisibly. The concept of talking the country down is not new in political language. It was used by Mrs Thatcher in an exchange on a public visit. But it was not heard as an element of parliamentary debate. The use of the phrase this week is not the first occasion it has been part of government language.

At First Minister's Questions on 10th December 2019 Mark Drakeford addressed Adam Price with the accusation: “Despite the disunity fostered by his party running down Wales at every opportunity, this is a country that faces the future with a greater sense of confidence and purpose.”

So we have a governing party anthropomorphising its nation as being congruent with itself. But Adam Price is simply fulfilling his constitutional duty. The same attitude from Government pertains to the Conservative Party. Paul Davies is addressed as being a representative of the government in Westminster. His exasperation can be visibly seen on the TV broadcasts. The insinuation is clear; to be un-Labour is be un-Welsh. Of course Wales voted two days after the put-down of Adam Price. In the UK general election that week Wales as an entity spoke as it did.

These exchanges suggest three things. One is a limited interpretation of what it is that constitutes the public sphere. Habermas is the foremost spokesman for its philosophical underpinning. In his “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere” (English translation 1989) Habermas distinguished a “representational" culture from one characterised by “Öffentlichkeit”, openness. He identified Britain as the historical pioneer but also lists the several threats. One is the merging of state with society; the public sphere decays when it becomes a locus for private contesting for the resources of the state.

The second is ecological. An ecology that flourishes is made up of high variation. The third is Hegelian. Thesis creates antithesis. Antithesis is not inevitable but essential. Now I do not expect the policy makers on the Senedd floor to be fluent in dialectical idealism. Health, employment, education are what matter and need expertise. But it is to be expected that the non-governmental leaders of culture embrace it and warm to its practitioners.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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