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Anti-Welsh? No, we're anti-inequality.

Patrick McGuinness's article 'Paving over the Cracks' in the Western Mail Magazine on April 8 has provoked a robust response from Labour AMs. Here, Huw Lewis, who represents Merthyr Tydfil, argues that debates over the crachach mask a more serious debate about inequality

PATRICK McGuinness's charge against Welsh Labour centres on the contention that the occasional use of the word 'crachach' by Labour AMs constitutes an attack on Welsh speakers.

It may be convenient to Mr McGuinness to reinvent Welsh terminology to back up his argument, but the fact remains, at least where I was brought up, that the use of the word 'crachach' was applied without any reference to the language spoken by the people referred to. In fact, in my youth, 'crachach' would immediately have conjured up images of the public school educated Englishman in a position of influence. Speaking Welsh is not a necessary qualification for membership of the 'crachach' and never has been.

This point may seem trivial, but I have to get down to this sort of level in order to expose the bankruptcy of the arguments being made by McGuinness. This concentration on the language is little more than a smokescreen. He accuses Welsh Labour of 'generating a culture of envy', and of 'tribalism and divisiveness', and why? Because we have challenged a cosy consensus within the arts world in Wales.

We currently have a situation where a derisory 5% of Arts funding ends up in the communities of the South Wales Valleys, home to a third of the Welsh population. Alun Pugh, Leighton Andrews and I have pointed to this fact and asked all concerned to consider this socially unjust. We cannot carry on with a system that essentially avoids investment in our least-well-off communities, while expecting those communities to keep on paying for the benefits received by the better off. I have not heard a single coherent defence of this status quo from anyone in this debate. What I have heard a great deal of is diversionary tactics and smears.

We will not gain clarity in this debate about the future of the Arts in Wales until we also achieve honesty. There are those that promote progressive redistributive change and those who oppose it - that's fair enough - it's the meat and drink of democratic politics and the struggle between right and left. But those who disguise their opposition by misrepresenting progressive politicians as 'anti-Welsh language', or even more bizarrely as just plain 'anti- Welsh', are in my view beneath contempt. They insult the public's intelligence, they insult the Welsh language, and they insult the poor.

Commentators like Patrick McGuinness have to learn that to employ misrepresentation as the core of your political argument ensures you cannot win that argument. What you do get, however, is corrosion of our body politic and of trust - the trust necessary for partners to work together. Take another little kernel of his argument - that 'nasty personal criticisms' had been made by Labour on Arts chair Geraint Talfan Davies. Well if he's seen any such personal criticism, I'd love to see it. I've never made such personal criticism, and I don't believe such criticism is warranted - so far as I am aware neither has any other Labour AM.

The real issue of debate here is democracy vs quangocracy. It's about fair shares in public spending. It's about addressing the justifiable grievances of the excluded, not just in arts spending, but across all aspects of the public realm.

In my six years as an Assembly Member I have encountered, and fought against, every single day, the injustices of old spending patterns inherited from the time of the Welsh Office. They permeate every strand of Welsh public spending and rarely, if ever, show any recognition of the needs of deprived communities.

McGuinness contends that with six years in power in the Assembly Welsh Labour has had ample time to put that right. Well, he's wrong. He seems to forget that being in government in a democratic society does not make one all-powerful. Vested interests are strong and vocal - and by definition well resourced. A minority government must make the argument for socially just progress afresh every day. And some times, lots of times, you lose a battle. The opposition success in reprieving the Arts Council being a case in point.

Wales is a grossly unequal society - you see it so clearly when you represent a constituency like mine. Unequal not just in terms of personal prosperity, but also in terms of access to public services and the stepping stones they offer to opportunity and a more fulfilled life. The Arts Council spending pattern is just an extreme case, and not by a long way the most harmful, but it is illustrative of the unfairness Welsh Labour seeks to combat.

I have heard no one defend a situation whereby large swathes of Wales are simply not served by the Arts Council - precisely because the situation is indefensible. Instead we get accusations of 'class envy' - that bleat of the Conservatives down the decades.

If there is a crachach or a 'Welsh establishment' then simply being in government does not qualify one for entry. The whole point of progressive government is to step outside the vested interests supporting the status quo and to challenge them. To do that we seek to build an alliance to serve the interests of the excluded as well as those who already do well. Those allies are welcome from any part of society, and are necessary from all parts of society, if change is to be permanent. Building such an alliance takes time.

This Saturday in the Magazine: Leighton Andrews AM on how Assembly democracy has broken up crachach decision making
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Apr 20, 2006
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