The Miseducation of Adam Price

Adam Price (2018) Wales: The First and Final Colony Y Lolfa, Tal-Y-bont

With a title like Wales: the first and final colony it would be reasonable to expect some philosophical rigour, and extended discussion of the idea of colonialism and Wales. The idea that Wales is still a colony is – to put it mildly – somewhat contested. There are books out there that deal well with this territory, from several perspectives and with more or less rigour.

Simon Brooks Why Wales Never Was is one that explicitly aims at providing such rigour and building upon it. Martin Johnes Wales: England’s Colony? does the same from a historianly perspective, whilst reaching radically different conclusions. From another lifetime ago, Michael Hechter’s Internal Colonialism could be argued to have founded the whole debate – despite the success of its detractors in picking it apart.

In this sense, therefore, it’s disappointing that this is simply a collection of Adam Price’s speeches, newspaper articles, and blogs.

Once you’ve abandoned the titular promise of a profound academic analysis of colonialism, though, it offers a fascinating story of change within a single political life. Cynog Dafis is correct to suggest in his foreword that “if you want to know what Plaid Cymru is going to be about for the forseeable future, you’d better read and digest this book”.

But, as with any book that attempts to put such ambition into print, careful and sceptical reading is the way to go – as early as the foreword itself. There is surely something distasteful in the foreword to a book by the male deposer of Plaid’s first female leader being subtitled “Cometh the hour; cometh the man; cometh the book” (my italics, obviously). This sense of awkwardness is heightened by Dafis’s dance around Price’s riffing on “entrepreneurship”, with its simultaneous insistence on Price’s socialism.

So, what do we find on “digesting” this book? My suggestion is that it allows us to see negative changes worth noting and confronting – not only for socialists like the Scotch Camel, but more broadly for anyone favouring independence for Wales or the preservation of Cymraeg as a living language. We’ll see this first in relation to four themes:

  • Socialism.
  • Yr Iaith Gymraeg
  • Psychiatry
  • Americanism, Institutional Centrism and the Sterephonics’ Theory of Everything

I’ll then argue that Price’s growing misperceptions in these areas derives from a single origin, a master error. This is his fashionable, but utterly mistaken, belief that effective education consists in being “creative”, rather than rote learning, memorisation or testing.


Adam Price, it appears, came early to a form of socialism. Plaid Cymru has included many sincere socialists within it ranks, as well as some insincere ones and some anti-socialists.  A bit like the Labour Party then, really.

Price’s first interactions with the Labour Party were in campaigning against it in Ammanford. But, at least for rhetorical purposes, he professes to have had a certain admiration for some of his adversaries. This is as you’d expect, given the battles that many in the Labour Party were fighting in the seventies and eighties, and the prevalency of the leather-jacketed revolutionary trope in the culture of that period.

It’s from this background that Price narrates a powerfully illustrative lesson. We’re going to look at this narratological structure in pro-independence politics in more detail later, and develop the theoretical framework I’m aiming to sell you relating to it. For now, let’s look at instance one of what I’m going to call “Aufhebung in Labour: How Labour Made Us.

"Aufhebung in Labour: How Labour Made Us" - Instance 1

As you’re probably aware, the Labour Party grew to dominate Welsh electoral life in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. Keir Hardie was one of the Labour Representation Committee’s first two MPs; being elected in Merthyr in 1900, He then became the formal leader of the Labour Party at the same meeting it was formed in the House of Commons in 1906. Hardie was a Home Ruler, a working-class socialist, and a sincere anti-imperialist.

Plaid Cymru was formed in a world dominated by the Labour Party, and by cross-cutting identifications with and oppositions to the labour movement that the Labour Party was a – often dominant – part of.  Prime factors in these ideological fields, as objects of myth as well as living communal realities, were the histories of the miners and mining valleys of the “South Wales coalfield” that Price was born at the western edge of. Whilst Labour’s grip throughout Wales has loosened over the course of Adam Price’s life, it’s dominance has been remarkable and has outlived the demise – the deliberate destruction – of the industry that once drove and defined it.

The Labour Party’s dominance through that area (and through most of Wales) didn’t happen solely by mining, however. Nor did it happen by magic.

Rather, it came out of a colonial religious reaction against the official State religion. That reaction, expressed in linguistically- Welsh and communally-built (literally, communally built) chapels and churches, dominated Welsh life through the Nineteenth Century and into the early Twentieth.  It didn’t just dominate Welsh life in Wales, but in Patagonia, Manchester, Liverpool and Ohio.  Grafted on to this were myths of the political radicalism of the Liberal Party, and the benefits it could deliver for Wales per se, and for the Welsh people.  Despite the formal economic individualism of free trade, the Welsh idea of Y Werin (the People) always implied an embattled and solidaristic form of being. When the Liberal Party could not – would not – accomodate the Radical and radically self-educated egalitarianism of Y Werin; the labour movement, and then the Labour Party was on hand to take advantage of a newly enfranchised electorate that had not changed.

Even when and where the term Y Werin has disappeared from common usage, this communal consciousness persists.  If or when Labour’s time passes in Wales, it will be because Labour has carelessly deserted the landscapes occupied by that radical egalitarianism and left it to others to shape and benefit from the meanings that are there.

One example of that desertion is the journey of Kim Howells from leather-jacketed bruiser to urbane proto-Blairite in the wake of the loss of the miners’ strike of 1984-5.  Price recounts his shock at the change – but what is implied is less shock than a retrospective realisation of Howells’ correct analysis.  This was the way the whole world was going – Price is seeing, by conveying his respect for this move the possibility of a model. In the 1980s, he did not take it.

Howell’s transformation through the 1980s, like that of Neil Kinnock and Hywel Francis – and Tony Blair – was shaped in reaction to the intellectual environment of Marxism Today. This misnamed journal attempted to provide blueprints for intellectually “radical” challenges to Marxism and leftism within the Labour tradition, by taking for granted the twin ideas that Labour’s old industrial class base was in decline and Marx’s immiseration thesis was outmoded. These may have looked true (to some) in 1986. Or even in 2006, with New Labour centrism still looking to many like the only game in town. But to take such ideas seriously after the 2008 collapse, you’d probably have to be living somewhere that wasn’t Wales. Like, I dunno, maybe Harvard.

Yr Iaith Gymraeg

Yr Iaith Gymraeg – the Welsh language – has been one of the defining issues of Welsh politics since at least the 1920s. Oddly, it has only at moments been a determining one in decisive events.

But it has effected deep structural changes since the 1960s in everyday life, at the all-Wales level, the Westminster-facing level, and even internationally.

Most importantly, it has bred generations of people who, often very consciously, have considerable pride in rebuilding a language that was – and I would argue is still – under threat both as a lived communication medium and as a key component of nationhood. Adam Price’s disappointment (and ‘learning’) at the centrist trajectory of his one-time left-wing adversaries is important – as we saw above.

But his entry into that engagement was as somebody who was already committed to Plaid Cymru – at that time simultaneously negotiating a path between the pure linguistic direction of some of its originators and the modified variants of a number of competing and complementary ideological schemas. Amongst the palette and places available to draw from in the discourse of Plaid Cymru and closely associated ones were: the radical linguistic nationalism and direct approaches epitomised by Saunders Lewis.  These battled and intertwined with various socialist and Nonconforming traditions such as those embodied in Gwynfor Evans, on top of the recency of the FWA, Meibion Glyndwyr and the Parliament for Wales campaign. Adding to the mix for a spell was even the explicitly Labour northern heritage of Huw T. Edwards (which we’ll be looking at more closely another time).

None of the pacific versions of these traditions, however, aimed at independence as such until some time after devolution had been achieved.  Not only did Wales not govern itself.  It did not try.


Psychiatry, pychoanalysis and counselling are suffused with charlatanry, bad science and fakery.

On reflection, this is hardly surprising, given how little of their subject matter is directly observable and measurable in any replicable fashion; and how upsetting and dangerous the varieties of problems they deal with are. Even reputable and would-be rigorous mental health practitioners find themselves unable to thoroughly insist on scientific recognition for their field. Models of Psychopathology shows this nicely, with the back cover blurb saying this:

Models and theories of psychopathology and their associated clinical practice do not represent scientific fact so much as a variation in perspective within psychopathology itself. Several favoured models exist within any society at a given time, and as well as changing historically over time, they also differ culturally between societies.

Editors Dilys Davies and Dinesh Bhugra (assuming they wrote that  blurb themselves) are employing the kind of scepticism about their own academic discipline here that’s to be expected from experts at the sharp end of a subject that includes trauma itself.  The same blurb suggests that possibly there is more in common between practitioners in psychopathology than the differences between “theoretical conceptualizations” would lead us to believe.

Practice trumps theory, in this instance. There’s no need for people in the mental health fields to stop working, just because they haven’t worked everything out yet. There are any number of connected fields across the biological and physical sciences from which assistance can be drawn. But there’s a warning here for those who would build on the supposed insights of pyschiatric theory for the theory of a nation-building project.

The most well-known of the attempts to use psychiatric practice as a bridge to political theory, is that elucidated by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, and Price draws upon this in ‘A wealthy country that lives in poverty: Part 1’, to claim that “the most long-lasting and deep-seated legacy of colonialism is psychological” (p.43).

However, the traumas Fanon encountered in his work during the Algerian war of independence were profound, inescapable and current, shaped by and referring to unambiguously physical forms of torture and dominance on the part of the occupying power. Applying this perspective in contexts where political murder, genocide, rape and lawlessness are not routine demands very careful translation and sensitivity. Attempting to apply lessons from India, where four millions died just during the Second World War due to Britain creating an unnecessary famine, doesn’t cut it. Attempting to apply lessons from Ireland, with its smaller but still significant death toll in recent memory, really isn’t nice either.

In fact, it may not make sense, now, to apply a colonial perspective to Wales at all where language is concerned, except in referring to something that used to be the case. Especially, it no longer makes much sense to talk of Welsh speakers having a colonial inferiority complex, or of being deferential about the use of the Welsh language. The reverse is just as likely to be true, with pride being more routine than deference. In instrumental terms, it is generally understood that command of Welsh is actually likely to be an advantage in gaining employment in Wales – and that where people argue against the usefulness of the language it is usually because they do not speak it themselves. Price’s parents may indeed have “consciously” (p.47) decided not to pass on the language to their children (this claim makes me pause, just a little . . . given his total fluency), but they were among the last generation of Welsh-speakers to whom this could have been a natural or well-informed choice.

From Saunders Lewis’s Tynged yr Iaith broadcast of 1962 onwards, an active pride in being able to speak Welsh has been growing consistently. From 1983, with the creation of (admittedly inadequate) state-supported media in the Welsh language, there was clearly work for Welsh-speakers. The vote of 18th of September 1997 created a (again, inadequate) Senedd where Cymraeg is perfectly ordinary amongst researchers and staff as much as amongst politicians. If Cymraeg is not as widespread as it should be, this is not because of any kind of inferiority complex.

There are ways that insights from psychology, social psychology and sociology can help us understand the relationship Wales still has with colonialism and Empire. But the superficial reading of personality types and inferiority complexes offered here doesn’t fit even the most basic of the relevant facts of contemporary Wales.

Americanism, Institutional Centrism and the Stereophonics' Theory of Everything

I’m going to look at these ideas in a more involved, but less effectively alliterative, order than suggested in this heading, although they are so closely connected that none of them should really have primacy at all.  And you really don’t want to have to wade through all the other stuff before you get to the nature of the Stereophonics’ Theory of Everything.

The Stereophonics' Theory of Everything

It’s unarguable, really.

You always do have to go there to come back. You may never come back, and you may never again be the one who went there, but you have to go if you’re going to return.

The picture on the cover of this Stereophonics album makes me think that Kelly Jones was addressing the idea of growing up, the way that you’re so eager to get started on living that you’re already in an imagined future with your innocence gone before you even stop to look around.

One step of profundity lower than that, though, you can also read this title as the ‘phonics really walking out of Wales and becoming just another American band of heartbreaks and dreams of girls on motorbikes. Don’t get me wrong – I like that stuff – but it’s a long way from the fucked-up self-aware class conscious hometown genius of A Thousand Trees. It’s a different world to the Local Boy in the Photograph.

This is the way it always is for the prophets of colonised cultures – whether cultures of poverty, of the working-classes, of linguistic minorities and nationalities looking forward to a future where they may not be.  It’s always all happening somewhere else, and that somewhere else is where you have to go before you can come home. When the struggle is already lost, going away is all that’s left.  To recuperate, to plan your comeback, to be somewhere where you do not have to see the consequences of the failure of your revolution on the faces of everyone around you every day.  Or to salvage something for whatever you can continue to believe in.

That must be how it felt for Adam Price on leaving his seat in St. Stephen’s Palace in 2010. Plaid Cymru’s successor Johnathan Edwards held onto Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, but lost a whole lot of votes. Labour also lost votes, with the gainers being the Tories, LibDems and UKIPers. Price’s radicalism and willingness to engage in cross-party collaboration with Labour left-wingers – including that habitual rebel Jeremy Corbyn – can’t have seemed much like it was paying off.

The Tories were back in government, thanks to the Liberal Democrats. Getting out of the country (or, the countries) was a bold and logical next move. And, as British artists (armed with their easy fluency in the global language of soft power) habitually do, Price went “there” – America – in order to come back.

Where he went, precisely, was Harvard.

Americanism and Institutional Centrism - The Harvard Speech

Here’s a video of his commencement speech, the text of which is also one of this book’s chapters (pp.85-87) :

Price’s history here is tailored for an American audience.  It’s not designed to do anything that makes that American audience uncomfortable – like remind them that so many of them were complicit in the illegal war that he and a certain Jeremy Corbyn (p.78) had so recently and so aggressively called out in Parliament.

You won’t see him tearing off the ceremonial robes to tell the great and the good  of Harvard that America still has to deal with its own imperialism – and the gains they have personally made from it.


Perish the thought. No, what he does here is to give a politician’s speech – he’s pressing the audience’s buttons in knowing and cynical fashion. Instead of simply speaking truth to power, he’s judiciously employing the languages of power to reposition himself as a statesman. Not quite a statesman though. Not yet – at this point he is still going away rather than coming back.

Rather, he is repositioning himself into the role of a “talented” man or a “leader” – a transAtlantic category that includes businesspeople, techies and politicians of all shades of opinion and formal allegiance as long as they are willing to cooperate with one another on a civil basis with respect for each others’ alleged “talent” or “leadership”.

Thus, sadly, he didn’t then use his time in America to bite the hand feeding him by developing the powerful critique of America’s global role you’d expect from somebody who was previously so notably – and genuinely – radical.  Instead he has added American influences to his vast quotational eclecticism – and adopted the empty faux radicalism of centrism. 

Americanism and Institutional Centrism - the (English) language of radicalism

What I mean by the “faux radicalism of centrism” is a verbal radicalism that skirts or redefines out of existence issues of the actual distribution of wealth and power in favour of energetically presented analyses of the mechanics of “leadership”, “innovation” and “change”.

And especially in favour of things that are “new”.  2016’s speech at Cardiff Metropolitan University (pp.176-186) illustrates this well – maybe even just a bit too bluntly.  It’s titled “A new dynamic: rising to the challenge of change” – as if there was a literary prize on offer for fitting the largest number of Tony Blair’s favourite words into one sentence.  Albeit, admittedly, one containing a verb.

Let’s look at how Price does Blairite radicalism here.

He opens with Churchill. Not the Churchill that sent troops to Tonypandy to kill miners.  No, this is the Churchill of harmless aphorisms, ready to be quoted for his wit and expertise on everything because he’s the only historical figure everybody’s heard of.  Apart from JFK, of course.  Just one paragraph later:

“Governments at their best can achieve great things. John F. Kennedy famously set a goal for the United States in 1961: to land a man on the Moon and bring him back safely to Earth by the end of the decade.” (pp.176-7)


I thought, on seeing this, suddenly awestruck and humbled.

“Adam Price’s time at Harvard has not been wasted; it was all deep cover for protracted negotiations with NASA working out the fine print for the maiden voyage of the Starship Mimosa. We are off this dying overheated planet! Smell ya later Greta! Cometh the hour, cometh the man.”

I know that you too will be disappointed to know that this was merely a fantasy. Sadly, I think you’ll be even more disappointed, or nonplussed and underwhelmed, when you discover what Price was leading up to.

“Wales has had it’s own moonshots since the dawn of devolution. [This is not literally true, btw, as I’m sure you know] There was the goal of closing the economic gap with the UK average to 90% of GVA per capita by 2010. There was the goal of being . . .

Basically, some targets have been missed.  The grandiose language means that I don’t care anymore which targets they are – Adam Price offered to take me to the moon; and we got as far as Barry Island and the PISA rankings on a wet bank holiday afternoon.  Wales has missed some targets. 

Of course it’s missed some targets. For twenty years it’s had an ineffectual government that the Welsh were never expected to vote into existence.  That government is housed in a postmodern plastic carbuncle in a city chosen to be a capital because it was the least Welsh city in Wales.  That carbuncle was built upon the death and banal rebirth of an industrial dockland as a crap shopping centre, and the fencing off of its inconveniently working-class black population.  It was built upon renaming Butetown – still “Tiger Bay” to some of the oldest people there when I arrived in Wales in 1991 – as the asinine “Cardiff Bay”.  Welsh devolution was always intended, by New Labour, to fail tediously whilst building a new centrist bureaucracy; far from the home of the working classes who would vote tamely for centrists because they were scared of the Thatcherite bogeywoman.

In the Boulting brothers’ film of Fame Is The Spur there’s a scene where the ‘hero’ is being advised by his Ann, his wife, on a forthcoming speech, who forces him to relate to the lives of people still living in the poverty he’s escaped.  She forces him into the details of what it means in lived experience to be amongst the statistics.  With that reminder, he produces exactly what she still feels.  No stats, no big ideas, no acronyms. Of course, it doesn’t last when she not there to remind him – and all that’s left in the end is the pompous languages of targets and “national interest”. And that distance from everyday lived experience leads straight to a sell out, just as in the real Labour Party histories that the fiction was based upon.

Note well, I genuinely am still talking about Fame Is The Spur, not Adam Price. But tell me you didn’t feel the room get just a touch cooler.

Meantime, let’s move on and start looking at the trouble with Adam’s central and foundational educational claim – that what Wales really needs is creativity.

Creativity is a Lie

“With this new emphasis on developing our innate creativity, we have the potential to become a nation of entrepreneurs, both individual and collective.”

In most worthwhile and precise senses, this is just meaningless psychocapitalistic tosh.  As Welsh people – whatever language we speak – we are perfectly aware that it’s possible to create things without getting properly minted as a result of it.  Or even doing it as a business.  As educated Welsh people we’re also keenly aware that it’s possible (if not indeed the general fucking historical rule) that the richest people did not do the most important work in making whatever it was that made them rich.

But, true though this is, it’s not quite what I’m talking about – yet – when I say that creativity is a lie. Price makes the comment above in addressing Wales’ colonial status in the Nineteenth Century. He claims that the ‘regimented’ nature of late Victorian education was precisely an education in obedience, designed to serve colonialism and nothing else, copying the model that the Prussians adopted following their defeat at the hands of Napoleon’s armies at Jena (p.51). As he (Price, not Napoleon) perceives it, this Prussian model adopted by the British state was designed such that:

“Schools were to become factories which would turn out obedient soldiers for the army, subservient workers for the mines and submissive civil servants for government. Independent thought – and in our case an independent language – was to be beaten out of our children.”

Beatings there certainly were, and the Welsh Not was one way in which those colonialist beatings were structured. But the trouble with this logic is that – were this educational model ineffective and productive only of ineffective learning and thought – then it would not have worked in aiding the expansion of the states that adopted it.  This ineffectual teaching method – given that it was English that was taught through this means in Britain – would have actively helped the survival of the Welsh language, rather than threatened it. Prussia’s reconstruction, based around education, would have failed.

Obviously, the Prussian model was anything but ineffective.  Prussia – in large part because of the education of its industrialists, its diplomats, and its armed forces – became the most powerful land power in Europe and in 65 years totally reversed the loss of power that it had suffered at Jena. 

That’s why Germany is a thing

The British state, once it fully realised the urgency of following Prussia’s lead, followed a similar trajectory.  It expanded following the introduction of compulsory education in 1870 into the biggest empire ever.  EVER!  It didn’t just succeed in military terms, but in selling the ideology of ‘free trade’ alongside it.  The civil servants educated within the factory-like system Price despises were flexible enough to rule vast areas of the world despite being hated, sometimes with barely superior technology, and often carrying an illusion of utter invincibility. 

Despite this success as an instrument of power, however, compulsory education actually failed to induce the subservience Price claims happened.  The mineworkers and the quarrymen and the millworkers and the matchgirls took it and used it to read the words of Keir Hardie and Karl Marx and Charles Dickens and Dr. William Price and Mark Twain and Conan Doyle and Charlie Darwin and Blake and Austen and Wilde and anything else they could get their grubby genius overworked hungry proletarian mitts on.

This is because . . . creativity is a lie.

Don’t just take my word for it though.  Take this guy’s word for it.  He taught himself Japanese to fluency without ever going to a class and can explain his reasoning for doing it that way by reference to the work of Malcom X.  He’s learnt a really hard thing, and thought hard about how he learnt it.  Here’s khatzumoto on creativity:


You’ll note that this fellah’s not recommending (quite) the tedious rote-learning that is conventionally identified with Victorian education. But he is very clearly advocating that you should not be creative when learning a language.  Maybe, although it’s exactly the teaching of Welsh that Price is addressing here, creativity is more important in other fields.  Like, say, role-playing games. . .

But check this cautionary tale from 1998. 

To be fair, there are not that many now who sincerely reject the idea of creativity, even in passing fashion. Our zeitgeist is suffused with “creatives” cutting and pasting and believing they are being creative because it’s in the job title. Oddly though, when it comes to “creativity”, they all use pictures of rainbows and brains and lightbulbs.  This is what a pretty representative section of the duckduckgo search for “creativity” looks like as a panel:

If this is a representative sample (it is, minus the smiling kids with rainbow face paint miraculously arranged in rainbow formation across their fingers with no spillage) of what creativity is understood to be, then there is a problem or seven billion.  I don’t have to spell it out, do I?  You’ve come this far with me. 

OK, I’ll spell it out just in case.

The religion of ‘creativity’ is braindead conformity in softplay party mode. It’s rainbows and new ways to make a profit for the tech masters. It’s lightbulb moments while the leccy bills fall on the mat. It’s a brain that everything has fallen out of and nobody will notice the difference. It’s experiments without the attempt at falsification. It’s thought without rigour.  It’s an eclectic rejection of the successful educational practices of the past. 

Or perhaps, of the present.  The US Army still aspires to a model of tactical working drawn from the rebirth of Prussian war philosophy after 1806.  From their explanation of this tactical doctrine, another word for it would be “subsidiarity” – emphasizing initiative towards given objectives rather than the inflexibility of parade ground manoeuvres. 

This, as long as we admit the possibility of it being used for mass murder as well as predictable rainbows, is exactly what is meant by ‘creativity’ in the contemporary world – imagination in the service of unthinking obedience.

The catch, as far as the powerful are concerned, is that this depends upon prior education in the things you need to know to act on personal initiative in a given field.  How does that prior education work?

Well, by rote learning. For small children, the done thing is to disguise this rote learning as play, and make it fun. It’s fun to learn stories word for word, until long after their parents are sick of it.  It’s fun to recite an alphabet in a sing-song voice.  It’s even fun to recite times tables and scientific formulae and verbal conjugations, if nobody’s forcing you into tests on how you can creatively apply your rote learning every five seconds or making you fill in an assessment form.  For bigger kids there’s a million techniques teachers use – but the key universal amongst them is knowing stuff and being proud of passing it on.  This is impossible when education policy is a political plaything that always results in more work for the teacher in lesson preparation, and less work in keeping up to date with the things they are supposed to be passing on to other people.

That’s hard when schools don’t have money because everyone’s too busy paying for Jeff Bezo’s bank holiday trip to the moon.  It’s hard when two generations of teachers have been told to pretend that nobody learnt anything from old-fashioned education.  It’s hard when kids are being told that they are automatically creative, even though they have not been given the tools to make anything properly with.  It’s hard when the kids are knackered and arsey because they didn’t have breakfast and had to get up at 7.30 am to get a bus to a school ten miles away because everybody treats Tory closures like they’re irreversible.

Luckily, people insist on learning anyway, and continue to feel proud of the fantastic results they get from rote learning. With small class sizes and teachers willing and able to repeat things a million times over, YouTube and Duolingo demonstrate this daily – without ever pressuring anyone to do a test they aren’t ready for yet. 

This empty creativity mantra on Price’s part would be a minor issue, if it weren’t for two disturbing connections.  We’ll look first at the “New Labour technocracy and the creativity industry” and then move on to “psychological independence”.


The New Labour technocracy and the creativity industry

Creativity was not historically a big deal for politicians, until the New Labour years.  In the 1960s Harold Wilson may have gone with slogans about the “white heat of technology”, but he expected the political system to hold its citizens – and even its businesses – to account.  With the removal of restrictions on the movement of capital that came with Thatcher and Reagan, money could essentially go wherever its owners wanted.  New Labour, terrified of the capital flight they thought would follow making the rich pay, decided instead that imagination and creativitiy could, by themselves, take the place of redistribution.

Oddly, that imagination and creativity wasn’t going to come from politicians or from citizens.  Still less was it going to come from sociologists or songwriters or revolutionaries.  It was going to come from the “entrepreneurs” that New Labour was too scared to tax.  It was going to come from “business”, and the public sector had to watch and learn.  The result was that we watched our elected politicians sucking up to businesspeople for a generation, whilst the businesspeople broke up useful sections of the state under the impression that there was always going to be something left to privatise. 

The twist came in 2008.  With the crash came a sudden, total, reminder that capitalists actually need competent government in order to survive.  Government, around most of the world, could not cope with the fact that it was, once again, now expected to govern rather than merely to pass on the wishes of business as policy.  New Labour, hobbled by its subservience to the business classes (and the failure of the business classes to manage themselves) and outflanked on the left by socialists (and other human beings) sickened by the growth of the new warfare state, collapsed, with its members retreating into safe seats and think-tanks.

Especially think-tanks.

Amongst the earliest of those arguing for “new thinking” on the left, from the mid-1980s onwards was Geoff Mulgan.

Geoff may not be within your usual frame of reference if your prime interest is Welsh politics.  But, as with most small nations, the most powerful figures determining our destinies are elsewhere.  This will, btw, continue to be the case when Wales achieves independence.  Let’s talk about Geoff.

In the 1980s, after he’d got his Oxford degree, Geoff did admin for the Greater London Council.  This made him loads of contacts in government amongst people who were left-wing.  The GLC got well into what might now be called ‘identity politics’, so that people working there also got to meet lots of people who weren’t left-wing.  When the GLC proved too awkward for Margaret Thatcher’s government, it got abolished. But some of the jobs stayed, including Geoff Mulgan’s job in the semi-private company the GLC had set up.

Then he went to America, to study telecoms at MIT.  Which is nice for him.  Like the Kennedy programme Adam Price went on, he went as part of an academic scheme intended to deepen Anglo-American relations.  It may have been at this point that he joined the “British-American Project for the Successor Generation” that a right-wing Labour member had set up to prevent the death of what used to get called the “special relationship”.  Mulgan may have joined later, since its name was shortened to the fractionally less objectionable British American Project. 

Either way, his ability to use his previous (alleged) membership of the left whilst fitting nicely into a world that refused to recognise any sanity in the left was to advance his career nicely. After the privatisation of British Telecom in 1984, apparently left-wing experts in telecoms could hardly go wrong – as long as they didn’t go making a nusiance of themselves.  Mulgan got some gigs writing for CoMedia, an initially radical publishing company that became one determined to push the idea of “creativity” as something that could characterise business and political life; and could inspire the “creative cities” of the future. Via some policy work for Gordon Brown at the top of the 1990s, he set up the Demos think-tank along with Martin Jacques.  In 1997, he headed over to 10 Downing Street for a few years to be Tony Blair’s central policy adviser.  Once that gig finished he returned to the world of creative thinktanks, international lobbying, public speaking and pr – with over ten current directorships in his pocket.

If you think that what I’m getting at is simply that jetting off to America on an academic friendship programme is likely to send your political brain and friendships sprinting off to the neoliberal right, whilst your conscience drops into your pocket, you’re nearly correct.

More to the point though, Adam Price has worked for him – and is following precisely his agenda.

Price worked for Nesta upon his return from Harvard.  The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts was established at the dawn of the New Labour years, in 1998.  In 2011 Geoff Mulgan took over as CEO, and it became an independent charity in 2012.  Or, to put it another way, it got privatised. At about this point, Adam Price started working for them – as a “Senior Programme Manager in the Innovation Lab…”  What does that mean?  Well, it means he was “working on public service innovation and innovation spaces”.  What does that mean?  Well, stripped of innovation newspeak; it just means that he co-wrote a report for them.

Many of the ideas in it – let’s be fair – appear to make sense.  What ruins it is one central presupposition. Consider this couple of paragraphs:

It is difficult to work out a way that free prescriptions and public transport – if used at all – could actually be unsuccessful. But Price and Gatehouse are making a moral assertion here, rather than one based on either case studies or interviews. If anyone had actually said the last sentence in the investigations leading to this report it would have been referenced.  It isn’t, because it did not happenThe only people raising these concerns were the Nesta employees, whose founding premise is that redistribution is somehow not innovation, even when they have referred only sentences earlier to redistributive acts as “innovations” in the plural.

It’s not helped by the weaselish addition of the qualifier “system-wide” (if all pensioners get free bus travel, that’s system-wide, if words mean anything).  It is bizarre – and a lie – to claim that it is “more challenging” or more worthwhile to do things that are not redistributive.

This idea though, is what underpinned the intellectual project of the global phalanx of thinktanks and lobbying organisations that rose to power as the left, and then the liberals, and then the centre-left, and then the social democrats, and then the small-nation nationalists decided that they could not beat global capitalism – but there was a good living to be made from doing challenging and creative system-wide tinkering at the edges.


Independence as a State of Mind

All that said, mind, I don’t care much about Adam Price’s projected economic policies or technocratic social tinkering.  And whilst both Wales: the first and final colony and his other printed work are a galaxy away from the socialist independent Wales I want to see, both of us will ultimately end up disappointed at the failures and shortcomings of the free country we once dreamed of inhabiting.  That’s life, baby.  Whilst he’s an accidental neoliberal, at least he’s not a fascist scumball, a sexist prick or an unrepetant Wolf of Welshpool.  Once independence is gained, (like everywhere else that’s ever gained independence) we’ll find out who we are and what the new fault lines of our nation are.

Nor am I overwhelmingly worried whether we are “in Europe” or out. The meanings and direction of the European Union will shift so immeasurably over the next couple of decades that our current positions will appear archaic and mystifying in short order – as has happened to at least a few people even over the last three short years.  The same will be true of the multitude of compromises and sell-outs we’ll all see as short-term human greed powers us towards extinction and every new green new deal in turn misses its targets.

But I am concerned at Price’s attitude to independence. Welsh nationalism – or at least its intellectual leadership – has always had an uneasy relationship to the idea of full independence. Saunders Lewis did not ‘burn the bombing school’ in the name of a free Wales, but to defend a language.  And (because of that, to be fair) from the 1960s onwards – with the famous exceptions of small and violent but ineffectual groups – the primary recruitment of the young into Plaid Cymru has been via Cymdeithas yr Iaith.  Whilst Bobby Sands struck food for the unity of Ireland, Gwynfor Evans threatened to do so for the – admirable but somewhat smaller – aim of a TV station funded by the British State. Independence, rather than the ill-defined aim of ‘self-government’, only became the declared aim of Plaid Cymru sixteen years ago.

Already, there is a major intellectual challenge to it on the right of Plaid, with Brooks’ Why Wales Never Was seeking to persuade Welsh nationalists to push the British state into providing the kind of institutions that Cymraeg needs in order to prosper, and claiming that premature independence could even damage the prospects of the Welsh language. Price drinks from the same well when he sonorously declares (p.49) that “formal independence is meaningless unless we have first decolonised our minds”.

But we never will, because history never disappears.  Freedom, when it comes, will not be easy or therapeutic or a creative game.  They don’t teach it at the Kennedy Centre , or at Guy’s, or in the lecture halls of the Royal Society.  We’ll never be ready, and we’d better not, cometh the hour, be looking inside ourselves to find out who we are.