Imagine a country where you’re allowed to buy vodka and cigarettes but not baby clothes, because they are ‘non-essential’. A place where supermarkets can sell you socks but, mysteriously, neither tights nor lightbulbs. All right, you may plunge to your death down a dimly lit staircase in Pontarddulais, but at least you didn’t get that terrible Covid.
Often the butt of ignorant jokes, my homeland Wales is now quite rightly a laughing stock. Supermarkets have been allowed to remain open during the 17-day ‘firebreak’ — or Llockdown as it could more honestly be described. But Welsh Labour, led by First Minister Mark Drakeford, has banned them from selling household goods, clothes and books because a) that might encourage the dangerous activity known as ‘browsing’, and b) he claims it is ‘a straightforward matter of fairness’ to prevent retail giants making money from certain goods when small shops which sell them have been told to close.
‘Iesu Mawr!’ as Mamgu, my late grandmother, used to cry at times of peak consternation. The ban makes about as much sense as saying: ‘No, you can’t have a bath tonight because the shower’s broken.’
It is hard to overstate how insane this all is. Beyond the university towns and the Valleys, much of Wales has remarkably few Covid cases. Deaths from the virus fell to zero for several weeks and only recently ‘soared’ to 18. Meanwhile, tourist-dependent businesses in Pembrokeshire have followed the rules meticulously in order to welcome visitors this half-term week and, with luck, stave off bankruptcy. Hen dro! Drakeford won’t ease the restrictions until the entire nation has been razed to an abject state of ‘fairness’.
At least the farce has finally lifted a curtain on the tragedy which has afflicted this beautiful small nation since devolution in 1997. Robert Pritchard, who returned to Powys after a successful business career in London, refers to it despairingly as the People’s Democratic Socialist Republic of Wales. Life, he says, is ‘ever more surreal — it’s like being in an episode of Play for Today written by David Hare circa 1974. I keep expecting Drakeford to announce a new support package for British Leyland.’ Pritchard points out that 70 per cent of Welsh GDP is state spending, ‘which is actually higher than East Germany around the fall of the Berlin Wall’.
With his ill-fitting suit and morose delivery, Drakeford may come across as the somewhat underqualified branch manager of a rock shop in Rhyl, but in reality he is a fanatical Corbynist who got the top job two years ago because he was backed by Momentum. You might say that the loony left was running Wales but that implies a degree of competence which is almost entirely absent in Senedd Cymru, the Welsh parliament. To take just one recent example, Westminster gave it £170 million which it splurged on 17 Nightingale hospitals — yes, 17, for a population of 3.1 million — of which 16 were never used. A health economist at Swansea University said that, in hindsight, spending £166 million on 46 patients was ‘not a good use of limited resources’.
Iesu Mawr! It was a rare murmur of public criticism. Labour cronies and a small, arrogant Welsh-speaking elite which dominates the major institutions have kept a stranglehold on the media for decades. The level of nepotism would make a Medici blush: three generations of the Talfan Davies family have occupied the post of controller of BBC Wales
Welsh people are kept in the dark about the waste and corruption in their society. And not just because their leaders consider lightbulbs to be non-essential. Dissenting views are not permitted. NHS Wales, which was in crisis long before Covid, is worshipped uncritically even as tens of thousands cross the border every year to escape lengthy waiting lists. The Welsh government claimed that it changed the way it calculated ambulance response times to ‘more accurately reflect the performance or the service’. Or to cover up a frightening shambles. Take your pick.
A similar sleight of hand is to be found in education. In 2004, Wales abandoned Sats at ages seven and 11 along with school league tables, which helpfully allowed them to hide any plunge in standards. They got found out when Wales performed poorly in the international Pisa tests, shamefully dragging down the UK’s overall score.
It was a mortifying result for those of us who grew up in a place which punched far above its weight academically. The Welsh grammar schools sent boys and girls by the trainload to Oxford and Cambridge, spawning a brilliant generation of doctors, lawyers and professors. I remember standing at a bus stop with my Mam when she pointed out a young man. ‘That boy went up to Oxford and now he’s gone into teaching,’ she said reverently. What inspiration, what aspiration is there for a child at that bus stop today?
In an attempt to deflect attention from his idiotic ‘non-essential’ goods ban, Drakeford had the cheek to claim that Boris Johnson’s government was ‘undermining devolution’. If anyone is responsible for putting Wales in harm’s way, it’s the First Minister. The old hypocrite attended Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Carmarthen, now destroyed, like all the other great engines of social mobility. Wales’s tinpot tyrants don’t care how much damage they inflict with their political point-scoring. A devastating 30,000 Welsh people lost their jobs during the first lockdown. With a third and maybe even a fourth ‘firebreak’ threatened for the new year, societal devastation is practically guaranteed.
Initially the Welsh gave their support to Drakeford’s draconian approach to Covid. Maybe, just maybe, they are starting to wake up. An online petition calling on ministers to overturn the rule preventing supermarkets selling ‘non-essential items’ quickly attracted more than 60,000 signatures, making it the largest ever submitted to the Senedd. The best hope for Wales is for devolution to be reversed. In 1997, it was only by a mere 6,721 votes that the Welsh electorate said ‘Yes’.
There are times when I despair. And then someone does something that tells you that the wonderful humour and remarkably resilient pit-pony spirit of my country refuses to be extinguished. Someone like Chris Noden. Chris tried to enter a Tesco in Newport pushing a trolley and wearing only his underpants. Challenged by security, Dawn Noden, his wife, explained that as the Welsh government had decreed clothes in supermarkets were ‘non-essential’, her husband had decided not to wear any to prove a point.
Well done, Chris and Dawn, and thank you for proving that ‘fairness’ can be foul as well as ridiculous. Cymru am byth!
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10