Theatre in Wales

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I Had Absolutely No Idea What I Was Letting Myself In For

A Political Diary

Mike Parker , Penrallt Books, Machynlleth , June 5, 2016
A Political Diary by Mike Parker Mike Parker at Penrallt Books recalls the torrid time of his parliamentary candidacy. The gifts of the writer run through the diary that he kept, now morphed into his book.

At a dinner with a vice-chancellor: “it is hard to escape the feeling that I'm being slathered in the softest of soaps while being carefully scrutinised.” But Parker's pen or keyboard has a roughness of touch. The history of the Cold War is up for review but the 1980's had more to them than “Reagan's clownish finger on the trigger”. Tony Blair is likened to Norman Wisdom as “ both gurning comedians.” In the public gallery in the House of Commons he observes the two party leaders. There is no policy to discuss. From above he sees that the Prime Minister has “a skilful comb-over crafted to conceal a substantial bald patch.” He is “at his Flashman best, cocky, smooth and patronising.”

Opposite him “Ed Miliband is wretched.” Parker notices the lack of empathy with his companions, Harriet Harman and Ed Balls. “It makes Miliband look quite lonely. I actually feel quite sorry for him.” It is the era of the coalition government in Westminster. For Parker the Liberal frontbenchers have just one dimension. Traitors to principle their motive is only a “hunger for the trappings of power, from the cars and grace-and-favour country houses to the upsurge of new Lords, knights and MBEs among their ranks.” By May, the month of the election, the Leader of the Opposition gets only an analysis of “What a turnip that man is.”

The onlooker wonders whether Parker would have enjoyed the role of MP that much. Chris Huhne is described as “a preening twerp.” The sleek electoral machine that is the Scottish Nationalist Party were once “hairy-arsed pugilists.” Presentation is part of it. In the vernacular here a public relations consultant is by default a “slimeball”.The contradiction is laid bare in a point of explanation. “This was not quite the severe career swerve it might at first seem. In almost everything I've done, politics has been drizzled through it.” But that is not quite accurate. The watching is not the doing. “Writing and broadcasting from a sense of place has been my mainstay, and it seems to me impossible to do that without a strong political antenna.”

Being a good eye and ear is not the same as being a good practitioner. On occasion theatre critics have written the odd play. They have not been bad but they have looked pretty much like plays written by critics.

The difference is that campaigning may be black and white but policy making is not.
Parker loathes the Liberals but cites Paddy Ashdown: “the best time in politics is before you get elected...everything was clear and black and white. Then I got elected and nothing was ever simple again.” Parker is big on big issues. He insists that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership get into a door-to-door mailing despite the seasoned colleagues of Plaid Cymru knowing it to be a dead issue. He remembers from a long time back “crusades against American imperialism in Vietnam and British brutality in Biafra.”

But there is hardly anything in the book about what matters to the electorate. He admits that he does not know his way around the county's housing policy. At a public forum he is self-critical on his own inadequate response to the issue of badger culling. But public issues are rarely susceptible to a single solution.

In Lampeter he reflects on the financial situation of both the universities of Ceredigion. Higher education is dense and difficult and its configuration goes back decades. It is easy to write “woeful management exacerbates both situations.” This is extrapolated into “there’s an entire breed of managers, who hop from a health board to a university to a government advisory board without breaking stride.” It goes back to the predictable villain, Blair.

But there was an idealism behind Britain's proportion of young people in higher education being made equal to that of South Korea. Parker is tended to an apocalyptic view He is certain that the UK as a nation-state has had its day. “No Westminster Government has ever understood Wales and it never will.” The budgets of the coalition government have no fiscal or political argument behind them. Ideology is “wreaking irreversible havoc and dismantling the fabric of the country.”

The representatives in Parliament work in the public eye. In January of election year the Morlan Centre in Aberystwyth hosts a meeting on restoring the railway link to Carmarthen. It is a subject the candidate cares passionately about. Meanwhile in Parliament itself the Serious Crime Bill is under debate. The debate is led by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the contributors include Yvette Cooper, Keith Vaz and Elfyn Llwyd from nearby Meirionydd. The long contribution by Mark Williams of Ceredigion is focused on one clause in particular. It is fine-grained in detail and draws on experience of relevance acquired prior to the election to Parliament.

Government is also about knowledge. Previously Parker has watched a debate from Cardiff on Silk 1, Silk 2, the Barnett formula. He calls it “total bubble talk, of almost no interest to anyone normal.” But it is policy and it has a grinding detail that is a universe from the hustings. Its outcomes do affect lives. It is Voters are a unpredictable collection but a part of their make-up can be a nose for wisdom. Passion may be a necessary condition but it is not a sufficient one.

The candidate knows all too well that the borderlines of allegiance are hazy and broken over different issues. On Cilfaesty Hill near Dolfor he spends the day walking with Lynne Jones, former Labour MP in Birmingham. Close to the source of the Teme she remembers Gordon Brown for the way that “he fidgeted all the way through and never once looked me in the eye.” Parker observes that there is nothing between Lynne Jones and Leanne Wood politically except that “she- and I know, many other Labour voters- just cannot get past the N-word, nationalism.”

At the Tafarn y Ffarmers in Llanfihangel-y-Creuddyn he reflects on the European elections: “if there’s one thing recent canvassing for the Euro elections has shown m, it’s how random some people’s intentions are, their decision made on the most oblique of factors.” In Aberystwyth in November 2013 he remembers canvassing for a town by-election. The policy of the badger cull, that dates from Elin Jones’ tenure as Agriculture Minister, has a voter shouting in the street. “Who to vote for?” he wonders. “Labour then!” Parker points out that Elin Jones was part of a Labour-Plaid coalition. “Well, I dunno, UKIP then!” “Voting UKIP to help save wildlife?” Parker ponders its oddity.

There is the difference. Writers are impelled to reach an end point of definition in print and they do it on their own. Policy is achieved by massing a coalition for results that may achieve or may not achieve the purpose intended and may or may not endure. A hovering sub-theme of the heating-up referendum argument is the fate of any potential land border between Kingdom and Union. It was not so long that County Armagh was hauled back from its status of bandit country.

Back in Canada Michael Ignatieff described his own time in politics as “hubris” and “self-deception”. “I’d been a spectator most of my life, up in the stands as a commentator, a journalist, a columnist.” When Parker makes a visit to Plaid Headquarters he sees its location “in that no man’s land between Cardiff city centre and the Bay, a dustbowl of busy roads, crumbling Victoriana, razor-wired demolition sites and Legoland modernism.” It is the view from the sharp-penned outsider. For Ignatieff “suddenly the opportunity to be down in the arena seemed irresistible. I had absolutely no idea what I was letting myself in for.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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