Poverty, nationalism and the Wales Millenium centre.
Friday 26 November was a ‘good news’ day. It marked the beginning of a three-day gala opening of the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) in Cardiff, an event that was greeted by a media fanfare that relegated all other news in Wales to the back pages. Built in the Cardiff Bay area that was once home to the city’s red-light district, the WMC is a replacement for the Cardiff Opera House project abandoned for being too elitist almost ten years ago. The construction, plagued with funding problems and originally due to open on St David’s Day (1 March) 2001 was finally completed (after a £37 million Welsh Assembly grant in January 2002) at a total cost of £106 million.
Amongst the host of celebrities in raptures over the building, lovingly described by many as having looking like a cross between a giant computer mouse and an armadillo, was the patriotic Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel. Gushing with adulation he exclaimed, “The eyes of the world will be on the opening this weekend, but it’s important that the good work continues over the next year and that we, as a nation, embrace it.” (Western Mail, 26 November)
Many, including Terfel, share a patriotic delusion that people born in the same country have a common interest, unique to their particular geographical location and a source of misguided pride. This nationalistic nonsense and talk about ‘nations’ disguises the actual division of the world’s population into two classes, the minority who own the means of producing and distributing wealth and the majority of working people who are compelled to work for a wage or salary in order to live. These two classes have opposing interests, since the wealth enjoyed by the owning class depends on depriving working people of the things they need and reduces them to a life of servitude, insecurity and poverty. Working people have no country or nation, only a place where they were born and where they are exploited for the benefit of the owners. The interests of working people in Wales are common to working people throughout the world and antagonistic to the world’s capitalist class, including those in Wales. It is class not nationality that determines your role in society.
So instead urging people to ‘embrace’ the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ Terfel and his nationalist friends might stop to embrace a few facts about people in Wales, with many of its three million population in dire poverty. Does he embrace the fact that NHS waiting list cause BMA staff in Wales to “weep in despair”? On the day of the gala opening, “Dr Calland spoke as new monthly figures showed 311,000 people were waiting for treatment – up 2,400 on last month.” (BBC Wales Ceefax, 26 November) Or perhaps he might embrace the news that on the day of the gala opening reassurances that ‘Support Line Cymru,’ the teacher’s telephone support line, would continue to get Assembly government funding. The support line, set up in 2002, received no fewer than 650 calls from teachers suffering from stress last year (ITV Wales, Teletext, 26 November).
Or even the unpleasant facts about those victims of work related injuries, the subject of a TUC report also reported on BBC Wales news (Ceefax page 165) on the morning of the 26 November. The report concluded, “Wales is the worst place in the UK for injury sustained by people slipping and tripping in work.” Stress, repetitive strain injury and back strains are itemised as the top three health risks facing workers.
Perhaps it’s a little too embarrassing to consider the facts about Cardiff’s environment. On the morning of the gala opening, the WMC’s new neighbours, the residents of Leckwith were told to embrace the fact they must “take special precautions” after traces of arsenic, lead, nickel and mercury had been found in the soil in their gardens, stadium and local allotment. Council investigations revealed “unacceptable levels of contamination” prompting the issuing of a warning to children and pregnant women, “to limit the amount of Leckwith-grown produce they ate.” The area had once been a railway yard and later a landfill site but is now a place where working people live. (www.bbc.co.uk, 26 November).
Reviewing the facts about unemployment in Wales will probably be even less palatable. John Osmond, Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs observed, “On the surface in Wales, unemployment appears to have reached tolerably low levels, but when combined with sickness and disability claimants, the proportions not working are higher than almost anywhere else in the UK. There are pockets of extreme poverty throughout. The Valleys pose particular problems, with their legacy of ill health, low skill levels and low employment activity rates. But there are also concentrations of poverty along the North Wales coastline, in south Pembrokeshire and in parts of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea” (www. jrf. org. uk /pressroom, 27 February). Nor the facts about the 55,000 inhabitants of Merthyr Tydfil, unless, of course, their quality of life has improved significantly since 2001. Then, 66 percent of homes had less than £10,000 income a year, 48.6 percent of people were in employment, 28 percent of homes receive housing benefit, 12.5 percent of homes are not fit for habitation, 44 percent of 16-60 year-olds had no qualifications and 30 percent of people suffered from long-term illness (Welsh Assembly Government, Mapping social exclusion in Wales, 1999; 2001 census)
Perhaps the plight of youngsters highlighted two years ago in a BBC examination of poverty in Wales that reported, “Youth unemployment in Wales is now the second highest in the whole of the UK” is worthy of being embraced by the nationalists. The BBC report showed that 14 percent of youth were jobless, 19 percent of the population received benefit and 700,000 people were below the low-income threshold, which meant that in the EU only Greece had more in so-called ‘official poverty.’ (news.bbc.co.uk, 30 July, 2002) In the period 2002-3, 27 percent of Welsh 15-year olds (10,000 children) failed to obtain any GCSEs above grade D and 8 percent obtained no GCSEs at all (3,000 children) compared to 4 percent in England (www.poverty.org.uk/intro/index.htm).
But, we shouldn’t let awkward facts spoil something as grand as the gala opening and many facts are best left unsaid. These might include the despair of thousands of people in Wales seeking help with debt problems, which three years ago had reached a total of £120 million. In September 2001, “The Welsh Consumer Council report+ reveals consumer troubles with loans, overdrafts, credit and store cards have risen by more than a third in the last four years. And trading standards officials are increasingly concerned about the activities of unlicensed loan sharks who use illegal or threatening tactics to collect cash. Today’s report reveals Citizen Advice Bureaux in Wales dealt with more than 56,000 debt inquiries” (Tom Badden, Liverpool Daily Post, 13 September 2001). Meanwhile, “the figures show there were 11,967 individual insolvencies in England and Wales in the third quarter of 2004. It was an increase of 6.2 percent on the previous quarter and 31.1 percent on the same period a year ago” (www.clearlybusiness.com).
Equally unattractive is embracing the knowledge that Shelter Cymru are “helping over 13,000 in housing need every year” and “estimate that 50,000 children are living in unfit housing in Wales according to the last house condition survey.” Or perhaps the estimated 33 percent of children in Wales who suffer asthma symptoms, more than three times the levels in Spain, Poland and Denmark. “The link between poor housing, homelessness and poor health are so obvious but they often seem overlooked when it comes to resources.” (www. sheltercymru, 7 July)
John Puzey, Director of Shelter Cymru had earlier warned that the housing ‘boom’ meant, “Fewer people are able to access the housing market with the average price of a home in Wales at £120,000. There is more pressure for social housing because people can’t afford to buy properties but social housing is less available due to lower levels of building and a continuing loss through the right to buy” (www.sheltercymru, 17 June). During 2003-4 the number of homeless households in Wales rose to 9,147, while those in temporary accommodation rose to 2,890 by March 2004, an increase of 94 percent in a year. “Even more damaging are the increasing numbers of families with children with no alternatives but to stay in overcrowded bed and breakfast accommodation – the latest figures show almost 700 households in B&B with about a quarter having dependent children.” Puzey continued that housing children in temporary accommodation “can cause serious life long problems, disrupting education and arresting development.” (Shelter Cymru, 29th September 2004). The BBC noted, “It is estimated that £3 bn is needed to bring every home in Wales up to a decent standard”(www.news.bbc.co.uk, 26 October).
We can be sure that life in “The South Wales Valleys [who are] facing a drugs ‘epidemic’ with heroin dealers operating “every quarter of a mile,” is a fact that won’t be embraced. Assistant Chief Constable of South Wales Police, David Francis, said “The drugs problem is the biggest crisis that is facing our communities – people in these communities are being torn apart by what drugs are doing to their families and the crime that is related to it.” (www.bbc.news.co.uk, 25 October, 2002)
Wake up, Bryn and all those peddling delusions of ‘nations.’ The only things that working people need ‘embrace’ are the undeniable truths that capitalism cannot work in our interest and the nationalist message is everywhere poisonous and divisive, embracing the notion that capitalism is somehow better when administrated locally. The socialist message is that working people everywhere must end the servitude, insecurity and poverty that capitalism is incapable of curing by embracing socialism, a world community without nations, class discrimination, production for profit or money. In socialist society each, according to their individual taste, will be freely entertained in venues like the WMC throughout the world, while the fear that we must sink back to a life of deprivation and misery after the final curtain falls will have become nothing more than a distant memory.