In England, success in life is bound up with where you went to school. In Wales, where I come from, the standard of education can be so miserable that you’d do better to get expelled.
I did. I’d just spent three days in ‘isolation’ in my south Wales comprehensive — banished to a cubicle with a CCTV camera — for misbehaviour. As I left the grounds, I lit a cigarette. A teacher accosted me. I got lippy and she smacked me across the face. I was expelled soon after. Thank God.
If you want good schooling in Wales, you’d be best to go private. If you’re taken ill, make sure you’re treated in the English NHS, not the Welsh version. If you want a private-sector job, best leave Wales. You get the picture. My country, with its mighty industrial past, has become the basket case of the United Kingdom. Wales has the highest proportion of low-income households in Britain — and there is more poverty in working households in Wales than in non-working ones. Wales also has the UK’s highest level of child poverty.
When the scale of this social, educational and economic failure is pointed out in Westminster, Welsh politicians splutter about ‘a Tory war on Wales’ or ‘an English war on Wales’. To which, as a young, working-class guy who’s lived almost all his life in Wales, I can only reply: if telling the truth is war, then this is a just war.
The problem is simple: Wales has been betrayed by 15 years of maladministration by a Labour government stuck in the 1970s. There’s no shortage of patriotic fervour here: if you want a taste of national pride, visit Cardiff on a rugby match day. But that just makes it more tragic that devolution in Wales offers a masterclass in how not to run a country.
It was a Welsh prime minister, David Lloyd George, who laid the foundations for the welfare state. But don’t bet on another British prime minister emerging from a Welsh state school. My old school has recently been taken into ‘special measures’ — a bureaucratic term given to failure-factory schools which inflict immense damage on the communities they are supposed to serve. In total, six local education authorities in Wales are in special measures. In my class, 30-plus pupils of very differing abilities and ambitions were homogenised into a one-size-fits-all approach that didn’t fit anyone. Troublemakers (including me) alleviated the tedium by devising their own hidden curriculum. Its mainstay: disrupting the work of beleaguered teaching staff.
At its worst, this culture of disaffection would create lessons so fractious that we’d have less than ten minutes of teaching. Teachers would take ‘study leave’ — months of respite brought on by the stress of such a chaotic environment. Such absences were encouraged by the unions. Sorting out classroom discipline was beyond anyone’s capabilities.
Do members of the Welsh Assembly know this is happening on the estates of south Wales? Yes. But they do virtually nothing, lest they seem to be ‘collaborating’ with the coalition. There’s no attempt to challenge teaching unions that are chiefly concerned with keeping third-rate teachers in jobs. Needless to say, Michael Gove’s reforms are ignored. So are any reforms. League tables? SAT tests for primary school leavers? These were done away with in Wales long ago, and now just 52 per cent of Welsh students leave school with five usable GCSEs. As Neil Kinnock might have put it: is that because Welsh teenagers are thick? Or is it because they’re being betrayed by a system that puts the demands of unions before the needs of pupils? Research from Bristol University found Welsh exam results had fallen by two GCSE grades per pupil on average each year since league tables were scrapped.
There’s a similar crisis in health. Wales is in the grip of the worst union-led resistance to reform anywhere in the NHS. It’s not wise to complain about it, however. Any criticism of ‘Nye Bevan’s NHS’ and you’re accused of advocating an American system in which uninsured people are left to die in the street. But what would Bevan have made of the fact that Welsh cancer patients now routinely cross the border to get treatment in the English NHS? I can only imagine his disgust. The Welsh father-in-law of a colleague of mine had a stroke. His nearest A&E was in Wales but he was told: ‘You should go to Chester — you’ll be safer there.’ Six hospitals in Wales have ‘higher than expected death rates’ (i.e., higher than in England). The Welsh government has finally, after intense pressure, agreed to an independent review.
Some of the pressure came from the Labour MP Ann Clwyd, whose husband spent 27 hours on a trolley waiting for treatment before dying in a Welsh hospital. Despite this, Ms Clwyd was denied an invitation to an Assembly committee meeting into NHS standards by her own party. Welsh Labour said her inclusion would be ‘constitutionally inappropriate’.
If you draw attention to the devastation caused by bad government in Wales, you’ll be accused of being unpatriotic. Our shocking public services and the scandal of benefit dependency in the Welsh valleys can only safely be mentioned if you blame them on ‘Thatcher’. But why have the scars of pit closures still not healed 30 years on? Where are the regeneration projects for the communities that drove Britain into the industrial age?
At the root of these problems is the ferociously anti-market mentality of Welsh politicians. The business minister, Edwina Hart, has a taxpayer-funded subscription to the Morning Star. (‘The minister has taken the Morning Star and the Financial Times daily since 1999 in order to get a balanced view on the issues of the day,’ explains her spokesman.) She has expressed her ‘regret about the capitalist system’ and urged Assembly members to learn the lessons of Marx and Engels. They seem to have done so. In Swansea, 35 per cent of the workforce is employed by the state. In Cardiff alone, nearly 50,000 people work in the public sector.
Such statistics are met with quiet despair by many Labour MPs. Ed Miliband, scared of the unions and desperate to hold on to regional fiefdoms, turns a blind eye. Indeed, he has proposed the Welsh Labour model as an ‘alternative’ to Tory government. Wales is certainly closer to Miliband’s politics than those of Tony Blair. The Welsh Assembly used its powers to reject the Blair reforms, and the appalling results are now on display. So I have seen Miliband’s future — it doesn’t work. England should be worried.
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Christopher Gage is a former Spectator intern.
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