Wales in a changing world — Jeremy Miles AM
Watching Carwyn Jones’ recent interview about the turbulent months we are living through, it is easy to forget that the defining feature of his tenure as First Minister has been the testing times which Wales has endured through austerity and now the shockwave unleashed by the Brexit vote. The Welsh Government he has led has sheltered our communities from much of the storm over those years.
And yet, whoever succeeds him as First Minister in due course will take on the leadership of Wales at a time which is uniquely difficult since devolution.
In the next Assembly, we will be living in a post-EU era. Serious though this challenge will be — deepening austerity, rapid technological change and a mass ageing society will be even more powerful forces. These transformations, though they already feel real, are only just beginning to leave their mark on our society.
We can look to our past as a guide to radical action in times of turbulence and transformation.
But one of our heroes of radicalism, Aneurin Bevan has become little more than a heritage brand to many. Deified, revered, approached in awe. And yet this doesn’t do him justice. He was angry, uncomfortable, inconvenient, as well as a pragmatist.
Bevan’s legacy matters, particularly for those of us who are democratic socialists, because it can give us clarity in a Wales muddied by Brexit. But as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NHS this year, this shouldn’t be a commemoration, but a challenge to recapture our own anger, and to bring about the change that Bevan the bloody-minded radical would seek.
Wales should become again the nation of the second chance. For all the reasons I’ve set out, the jobs that support our families today will disappear. But we can create new jobs — the jobs that a new baby born into the NHS today will do, don’t yet exist.
And by returning to one of our basic values we will be able to give people the chance to cope with change and benefit from it. A universal right to lifelong learning would give every citizen the chance to re-boot their career in adult life whilst also rectifying the imbalance between state support for those in higher education and the majority who are not. Bevan’s legacy is that we are not powerless to shape society. Government has a role, must have a role in remolding our economy in the face of all these changes.
But seeing technology just as a threat would be to miss an enormous opportunity — to improve services and to make sure they don’t become the preserve of the few in an age of austerity.
Let’s hope we soon have a UK Labour government which ditches austerity, but both spending cuts and social justice demand that we look at new ways of working, through technology. Breaking out of a cycle of trying to catch up, and allow us to look ahead and leapfrog into the future. Rather than debate how we can catch up with other countries, the task will be to imagine what we can do to get ahead of them. After all, socialism is about ambition, about a burning conviction that things can be better than the market dictates.
Whether it’s smart transport rather than more road-building or cutting edge CareTech freeing up our exhausted carers and supporting a growing cohort of older citizens, artificial intelligence and technological innovation can allow us to do not just the things we do today better, but to be more ambitious about what we do tomorrow, in a way which is fairer and cheaper, in the long run.
And as income from work becomes more uncertain, it will be incumbent on the state to do all it can to drive down the cost of basics.
Bevan was an architect of the Welfare State. Tomorrow’s task will be a Wellbeing State. The guarantee of health and social care, education and social security, should be extended by a guarantee of not for profit, cheap modern essentials: energy, transport and broadband, whose crippling costs burden so many people today. Not for profit providers, with ownership open to all, delivering the basics that none of us should have to worry about — that’s what a modern safety net needs to provide.
These are the opportunities we will need to grasp in the coming decade. They are exciting and they drive us on to re-energise Wales. It will need imagination and a sense of national mission, to come together to tackle the scale of change ahead. We are a small country — and we can lead the way, if we choose to.
Jeremy Miles is the Labour and Co-operative Assembly Member for Neath and is writing in a personal capacity.