Theatre in Wales

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A Discomfort with Debate

Summing It Up

Policy and Presentation , Public Sphere of Wales , June 20, 2020
Summing It Up by Policy and Presentation It is a while since philosophers became parliamentarians. Edmund Burke sat in the Commons from 1766 to 1794. Arthur James Balfour wrote his “Defence of Philosophic Doubt” in 1879. Lord Haldane was co-translater of the first edition of Schopenhauer in English. On his own account Haldane's books included “The Reign of Relativity”, on the philosophical implications of relativity, and “The Pathway to Reality”, based on his Gifford Lectures.

Britain divides from Europe where philosophers enjoy high public status. The downplaying of philosophers in the British public sphere is itself part of the philosophic tradition; pragmatism is paraded proudly.

But action is based on thought, whether it be consciously acknowledged or not. We are, one and all, servants of the particular culture in which we are steeped. The criticism expressed on this site is rooted in observation and founded on aesthetic principle. I am unconvinced when performance has another motivation, to be a realisation in material expression of theory boiled up in a seminar room.

Philosophic traditions come to the fore in the highest chambers of constitutional states. The article of 12th March below contained a line:

“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.”

We should expect the Arts Council of Wales not just to embrace the dialectic but to be thrilled by it. This is in the main because it is a building block of the universe.

But in Wales there is a challenge. The political accomplishment of the Labour Party is indelible. Its cultural heritage is variant where a strand has always leaned in disfavour of dualism. Historically the overturning of dialectical idealism to dialectical materialism provided a legitimacy to political monism. The concept of the vanguard party repudiates Hegelian dialectic. Its echo can be sensed on the floor of the Senedd.

I was for a while a constituent of Tony Benn and went to his public meetings a few times. He was possessed of great personal charm but he was essentially a monist. He had a view about other parties. When they critiqued his party he responded with:

“These attacks derive from the knowledge that democratic socialism in all its aspects does reflect the true interest of a majority of people in this country, and what democratic socialists are saying is getting through to more and more people, despite the round-the-clock efforts of the media to fill the newspapers and the airwaves with a cacophany of distortion.”

This was written in the “Diaries” on 22nd March 1982. It leads to very tricky ethical territory. It needs to profess that most of our fellow human beings are insufficient in self-consciousness to formulate a vote that expresses their self-interest. It is not my ethics. The article of 25th March below highlighted the last quality document of the Arts Council of Wales. “Strive to Excel” embraced dialectic.

The article of March 12th reported from the floor of the Senedd,. It ought to be an unusual place for an arts writer to visit. But in a small polity with a young Chamber it is not. The reasons are twofold. As a televised place it is itself a cultural artefact. The second is that the Government of Wales lays considerable claims on art-making.

The rules that apply on the use of cameras are firm and correct. Fast editing, zooms, cross-cutting should not be allowed; their usage would render debate and policy secondary to playing to camera.

But the view that the Chamber projects to nation is the reverse. The impression given to a regular viewer is that all concerned know no-one is watching. Otherwise, a Member would avoid being filmed biting a finger-nail for BBC transmission. But most of all the images project an inattention to debate.

Questions to the Executive from elected representatives are the noble peak of a constitutional state. In place of the high peak of honour the television viewer in Wales sees a process in Cardiff carried out without much enthusiasm. For a start the lack of attention is manifest. Members scroll their phones rather than listen with attention to the front bench. Computer screens block the view. Back-benchers pander to Government with parochial questions on bus routes in Ogmore. Is this truly how the Chamber wants to project itself to nation? The difference with Scotland is blazing.

It does not take a theatre reviewer to point out what is shown. Alun Davies last year in a BBC report, “said too often the impression given was that more politicians were communicating on their computers than debating.”

Davies: "I think, all too often, people watching us taking part in debates in this place will see a member speaking, as I am now, and a sea of heads looking downwards at their screens. It's time now that we review the structure of this chamber and ensure that we get rid of our computer screens and spend more time debating with each other and less time on our screens."

The BBC reported support for not participating in debate. Bethan Sayed: "Some of us are communicating with the real world when we are in there. I don't want them ripped out." The Llywydd was not so sure: "probably not a good look for a party leader to have members of their party behind them not paying any attention at all to what the party leader is saying".

The twentieth anniversary last year was met with muted celebration. Critiques from experts like Laura Macallister were valid. In my interpretation the lack of fervour for debate projects itself directly to the remarkable low public knowledge of the institution.

Reference: BBC article on the Senedd watching screens and not taking part in debates.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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