The Commune Next Door

Christopher Harries

I do not know about you, but the coronavirus lockdown has allowed me to get to know my neighbours. In what seems a paradox despite living in an increasingly interconnected world, individuals seem to be increasingly isolated. Lockdown has presented the opportunity to address the inward looking isolation and focus instead on wider society.

No man is an island,

entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main.

John Donne – Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

Despite having lived in the same address for eighteen months, it took lockdown for me to come to interact with the neighbours. Where we had passed in the street or when coming and going, the lockdown experience has forced us to interact.

It started early on in the period of government-imposed confinement. An evening blessed with weather suitable for a barbeque led to much merriment from across the garden wall. Drinks were being enjoyed and in time someone took to smoking cannabis based on the pungent scent on the evening breeze.

Every day, saw this behaviour continue with the number of guests in the garden increasing the longer that the lockdown persisted. Inclement weather would not dissuade the neighbours from their routine. For weeks, I ignored the antics from next door until last Friday night. The house next door, a small terrace house seemed to have a constant procession of guests and a soundtrack and fragrance that would not relent. 

Venturing outside at three in the morning, I stood on the doorstep and knocked. Eventually, someone came to the door and invited me to enter into what they dubbed the commune. The tenant looked as if she was in the middle of travelling on a gap year dressed in the customary purchase from Thailand the baggie elephant trousers. Nonchalant at aggrieved neighbours, she had no concern over the impact of her behaviour or that of her guests on others. 

The impeded sleep was irksome however this experience highlighted one side effect of our increasingly insular society. We have become less concerned with both the area where we live and less inclined to know our neighbours compared to previous generations, creating indifference to the impact of our behaviour of others. It was not lost on me that the so-called commune seemed indifferent to the impact of their behaviour on others.

Now, why do I regale you with a tale of the commune next door? As Donne acknowledged so eloquently no man can function truly independently. We all rely on others, and for a community or even society to truly function it requires every individual to accept they are part of something greater than one self. The commune highlighted what happens when individuals and indeed groups lose sight of the wider society and become indifferent to others.

Lockdown has highlighted both the best and worst of society. The selfless sacrifice as well as the selfish behaviour of others. You just have to look at the news to see individuals and groups wantonly breaking restrictions with seemingly little to no regard for the potential impact of their behaviour on others. As Lockdown is gradually phased out, let us remember that we are all not merely an island but instead part of something more.  

Sweden: The envy of the world?

Charlie Evans

This morning I watched again the video outlining the initial UK strategy on coronavirus, the one with a chap with the buckets and water. It has been watched over 3.5 million times on YouTube alone. In the video the narrator argued that our response was based on ensuring that the NHS was not overwhelmed and that quarantine needed to be implemented at the right time.  It was an excellent rebuttal at the time against those who were claiming that the Government essentially wanted to kill off the old and infirm by not initiating an Italy-style lockdown at that point. It was a confident and bold move, similar to that of Sweden’s against an international consensus of opting for lockdowns. Of course, governments around the world were not blessed with the benefit of hindsight and with an unknown virus, lockdown was probably perceived to the safest approach, save for the enormous economic, social and public health damage it would do.

Government opponents rallied against its so-called herd immunity approach despite it not being official government policy yet was the only means of beating coronavirus either by enough of us getting it or through mass inoculation. Yet following Professor Neil Ferguson’s modelling showing Britain having 500,000 deaths if it did nothing or 250,000 if it continued on its current path, the government were spooked into action. On such figures, you can see why. Epidemiologists at the time predicted 80% of the population needed to get infected to achieve natural herd immunity and with a case fatality rate of around about 1% that would have entailed significant deaths. Even if the fatality rate was more akin to 0.5% it would still have been significant. However the percentage of population requiring infection achieve natural herd immunity has since been revised down to about 40%. And thankfully, more research continues to suggest that many of us have residual immunity through T-cells acquired through illnesses such as the common cold which is in fact a common strain of coronavirus.

Sweden however stuck to its guns. Anders Tegnell, the Swedish state epidemiologist did not press the panic button and chose not to impose the lockdowns like the rest of Europe. Initially it seemed like it was failing with their Danish, Norwegian and Finnish neighbours having a lower number of deaths, made worse by Sweden’s negligence in regards to care homes. Yet Tegnell always insisted, that the area under the curve (being deaths) would all average the same in the end, and the difference was around strategy. Sweden’s strategy has clearly done far less economic and social damage, with school pupils not going through any exam results fiasco as we are- they simply continued to go to school.


The epidemiology of the virus is currently sparking a new wave of panic and fear across Europe. Spain, France, Germany and Britain have not yet experienced second waves however there is certainly an uptick in the number of cases and the curve continues to rise. New Zealand continue to adopt the damaging “zero-COVID” approach, locking down Auckland for just a couple of dozen cases. However this wave of corona-panic is not felt in Sweden. Their cases continue to fall. Many experts now think Sweden is approaching herd immunity, defying the predictions Professor Ferguson made for Sweden. Swedes continues to work and play as they have done largely throughout the pandemic, with a population empowered to make decisions for themselves, albeit with some distancing measures in place and bans on large crowds.

Lockdown gave the public unreasonable expectations of what to expect. It went from being used to flatten the curve to then being a strategy of virus suppression. We have seen that you can make some mitigations for it but you can not crush it. The public finally seems to be accepting that we have to live with it.

Encouragingly, despite Britain’s rising number of cases, the hospitalisation rate and death rate continues to fall further even though we are now enjoying increasingly relaxed conditions closer to normality. Either the virus has mutated into a less aggressive form or younger and fitter people are catching it with no impact on mortality. This by the way has always been Sweden’s approach- allowing the virus to move among the young and healthy while shielding those who are vulnerable. Such an approach coupled with an effective tracing system is the only way to live with the virus until a vaccine can be used.

Border Bigotry

Crispin John

A few weeks ago, the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was asked if she would rule out closing the border with England if public health circumstances required it. She refused to dismiss such a move, and said that border closures shouldn’t be seen as a “big political or constitutional issue”. This weekend one of her Advisors, Professor Devi Shridhar, has claimed that Scots are contracting COVID- 19 from the English and the Welsh. Both have been slammed in the London based media and accused of stoking divisions.

It would seem however, in a YouGov poll published a few days ago, that a large number of Scots are broadly in agreement with them. Four in ten Scottish people (40%) opposed English people travelling to Scotland if they don’t have to quarantine on arrival. They are, however, marginally outnumbered by the 47% of Scots who are content with English tourists still being allowed in. The figure amongst SNP voters is much higher, with 54% of those Scots wanting to ban the English from crossing the border without quarantine.

YouGov say that the results in Wales are very similar to those in Scotland: 37% of Welsh people want English tourists to stay away, compared to 50% who would welcome them. Again, politics plays a role, with 2019 Plaid voters the most likely to oppose English travellers, at 54%.

Although it’s true that England has suffered a higher percentage of excess deaths owing to COVID-19 compared to the other nations of the United Kingdom, the difference between the constituent parts of the UK is not really that staggering. It’s also fundamentally untrue to say that people from one part of the UK are “catching” COVID-19 disproportionately from another part of the Union. Could it be that the true motives for Scottish and Welsh Nationalists wishing to restrict travel by English people lie beyond public health concerns?

The Coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly given the First Ministers of the devolved legislatures a chance to broaden their public profile. Nicola Sturgeon’s status was probably already assured, but in Wales Mark Drakeford has had to battle to make his presence felt, given that Wales has historically had fewer devolved powers than Scotland. Its legislature only became a Parliament in March this year, but Scotland’s, on the other hand, has had that status from the outset.

Both First Ministers, though, have held regular press briefings and been pedantic about pointing out differences in the regulations that apply between their Governments and Westminster. There has been much talk about who’s been the better performer. I would however venture to suggest that from the outset there has been an undercurrent of Nationalist sentiment that has gone far beyond patriotism, and which has capitalised on the pandemic.

In Wales, at a very early stage of the crisis, we saw calls for visitors from England to be banned from parts of North Wales such as Ynys Môn and the Llŷn Peninsula. This wasn’t without some justification. One of the valid arguments used was that the local health board, with smaller hospital capacity, wouldn’t be able to cope with demand if there was a significant outbreak.

The only remaining national Welsh paper, the Western Mail, came in for harsh criticism when it printed a front page containing the headline; Stay out of Wales, English warned.” On the same page, in a different story, there was a picture of Gareth Bale, snapped screaming aggressively during a football match. The direction of his ire in this context was towards the anti-English headline which had been printed opposite. This wasn’t an editorial mistake. Many saw it as outright xenophobia.

Later, police would tweet pictures of the cars of visitors who they had turned back because they had broken the Welsh Government’s “five mile travel” rule. Although the border had not been closed, it was virtually the same thing.

And now, a majority of Nationalists in both Scotland and Wales want to see border controls imposed. On a practical level, the Anglo Scottish border is 96 miles long, sparsely populated and with few people commuting over it. The border between England and Wales is very different. At 160 miles, it is fairly densely populated in some places, particularly the North East, with frequent cross border travel. In reality, policing either would be a nightmare.

Perhaps some of these Nationalists should be careful what they wish for. A separate YouGov poll shows that if there were to be a Referendum in England on English independence from the Union – in other words forcibly removing Wales and Scotland from the UK – 56% of English people would support English independence. Accused, whether justifiably or not, of stoking up anti English sentiment, the Nationalists in Scotland and in Wales run the risk of biting off more than they can chew.

In Defence of Camper Vans

Amanda Jenner

Covid-19 is like a big family Wedding. Although there’s a lot of love in the room, it has also unleashed the worst side of some. Unfortunately, when you add domestic and Home Nations tourism into the mix, you’ve got fisty cuffs brewing that is akin to obnoxiously drunk Uncle Johnny and melodramatically sanctimonious Uncle Phil arguing over a territorial bedroom incident that occurred back in 1999.

It only takes a few badly behaving tourists and a few anti-tourist locals to give everyone a bad name. Divisions grow and misjudged reputations take hold.

The question is, does the camper van trend add to this animosity? Unfortunately, it seems it does. But in my view, it really shouldn’t have to be like this. I should probably disclose that I have a conflict of interest here, but in due course, all shall be revealed.

Now let me tell you a little about camper van owners – they are a bit like members of political parties, in that they are part of a broad church. Some are boringly reasonable people, who’d never dream of leaving litter and their waste behind or of parking up illegally overnight. These are the people who excruciatingly plan every minute detail of their voyage, almost to the extent that they remove the fun from it. They pedantically zoom in on satellite images of every car park that they’re headed to ensure ample room and minimum stress. How do I know that this species exists you ask? Confession time… I am one of them.

At the other end of the camper van owner spectrum are the few selfish, “I don’t care what anyone else thinks and I am entitled to park and dump wherever and whatever I want” people. And then, of course, there is everyone in-between. As is often the case, it is the extreme few who end up giving a whole category of people a bad name.

There are also so many different types of camper vans, some which are smaller than pickup trucks and then those, which are the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the van world. Unfortunately, some camper van owners choose an inappropriate type of van for their terminus. If you want to get a monstrous van, which is ten times the size of an average London flat and has the technical abilities of Optimus Prime, then really, you shouldn’t be heading down the small meandering lanes of Pembrokeshire or Snowdonia to a family farm campsite.

Yet for those more sensible van owners who’ve chosen a suitably sized van for a country lane (which will be way easier to reverse than a caravan); our local tourism sectors needs you. Those who book in advance at family-owned campsites, pay to park in National Park car parks and pick up all their rubbish; our local economies need you! Farmers who have diversified into tourism need you! Local restaurants and pubs need you! Please don’t be put off by this anti-tourist noise.

Wales should be accessible for as many people as possible. Hiring or investing in a campervan can be much more affordable than regularly flying abroad or renting a holiday house. Turning more and more houses into second homes and holiday cottages also create problems and divisions, which I am not going to get into here.

My rather protracted point is that camper vans can be great for tourism. Camper van owners on mass just need to tone down their spontaneity and perhaps we need some more locally developed measures brought in to fine and take action against those few camper van driving tourists who ruin it for all.

Trump’s Yuge Test

Huw Davies

Do not believe the commentators the US election is by no means a forgone conclusion.

While the polls suggest a Biden victory, let us not forget that polling consistently showed in the run-up to the last election, Hilary Clinton would end up occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Can History repeat itself and will Trump defy the odds and the commentariat?

Instead of obsessing about National Polling, we should instead look at state polls, which are likely to be better indicators of how the electoral college may vote.

States such as Arizona, Texas and Georgia, traditionally Republican, are currently looking shaky for President Trump. There are two types of Trump voter, one overt in their support for him, the other covert, and it is the latter that may decide the election.

The enthusiasm factor is with the President, not his challenger despite the challenger leading many opinion polls. The selection of Kamala Harris as the Democratic Party running mate is supposedly meant to energise the base amongst African American voters, and potentially women who think it is time to finally ‘shatter the glass ceiling’.

But the reality is, Vice Presidential candidates do very little to change voters minds or ultimately to encourage people to actually vote. They are generally there to harden up the base of support for the respective party. History is littered with examples of candidates choosing a running mate ignoring whatever animosity may exist between the two, such as John F Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, but one saw the other as necessary to his election chances to ensure the Southern Democratic voter (yes, there was such a thing!) stayed loyal.

Trump is generally seen by voters as the best candidate to handle the US economy after the Coronavirus Crisis. Will this promise of a ‘YUGE’ economic comeback save his re-election campaign? Or will Biden stroll to victory?

If Biden fails to take the White House, the Democrats will ultimately undertake another bout of contemplation. The failure of another moderate could perhaps signal a shift to the left and fully embrace the policies of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

If Trump loses, then the Republicans will have to consider how to proceed. There is already talk about who will come after Trump, win or lose. The next challenge for the Republicans will be to find someone who can win support from both the traditional GOP base and the new so-called ‘Trumpian’ Republicans for the US Election in 2024.

In time we will find out whether Trump can defy the odds and retain the Presidency.

Testing Times

Charlie Evans

In the past week, across the United Kingdom, we have seen students collect their A-Level results. In every corner of the United Kingdom, the results have descended into farce and individuals are suffering accordingly.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon was forced to apologise for the downgrading of results and calls for the Scottish Education Minister to consider his position.

Yesterday the results were released for the rest of the United Kingdom. Due to the time between the release of the results the respective Governments have had time to reflect on the debacle in Scotland. As a result of the delay proposals, such things as a “Triple Lock” were announced just days before the results were released. Despite such action taken to minimise the damage and criticism, there is widespread dissatisfaction from parents and pupils. In England, record A* and A grades have been given out yet conversely, 36% of all grades awarded were lower than teacher predictions. In Wales for instance, 4500 pupils have received an exams upgrade but 45% of grades awarded lower than predictions. Whether grade inflation or deflation, the experience has been the same throughout Britain.

The popular liberal view that exam-based education is somehow holding young people back has been found wanting. Sure education needs to be broad and work for pupils of all talent and background- some, of course, do not thrive in exam environments- but when we remove objective testing criteria we are left in educational purgatory, with results being awarded in some form of a postcode lottery. Results should not be the sole arbiter of one’s future, but we have seen that without testing there is dissatisfaction all around. It is easy to forget that the results fiasco is not a victimless failure, behind the figures are young people who will have experienced crushing news causing plans and dreams to change.

This sorry episode has exposed the futility of closing our schools. With pupils out of education for many months and not sitting their exams, the parameters used to award grades were always going to produce inconsistencies. Leading the charge on this are the teaching unions who have attempted to block pupils having an education at every possible hurdle. They are as accountable for the events of the last seven days as politicians.

Children of all ages have been deprived of an education for the last few months. The results fiasco in the last few days is further proof of the damage that lockdown has caused the development of young people. 

Distance learning or education by Microsoft Teams does not hack it. Parents, many in full-time work have had to play teacher as well as mum and dad. Parents have been forced to take unpaid leave or book out their annual leave to do so. 

If the education of our young people is not seen to be a priority when the going gets tough, then what do we stand for as a nation and as a people?

The Personification of Politics

Crispin John

Last week, this website broke the news that the “miniature hut” which was the temporary residence of the First Minister of Wales was in fact anything but miniature, nor was it a hut. It was a failing in the Welsh Government’s media strategy which, so far during the pandemic, has been on a tight leash.

The claim the First Minister made during a radio interview was unnecessary. It was enough for people to have known, as they did by then, that Mark Drakeford had separated himself from his family, who were shielding. That had already won him sympathy, and far more than had been received by Boris Johnson, who had lived apart from Carrie Symonds in the latter part of her pregnancy.

The Welsh Government’s media strategy throughout the pandemic has relied on putting the First Minister front and centre. It was noticeable during last December’s General Election campaign that Jeremy Corbyn was conspicuous by his absence in Wales. At the time Labour colleagues told me they simply did not want Corbyn here. The strategy revolved around Mark Drakeford and Welsh Labour. It was, they said, a personally led campaign.

This personification of our politics is nothing new, of course. Back in 1997 the Labour Party came up with the pocket-sized pledge card, signed by Tony Blair. When I was volunteering at CCHQ in Wales in 2014-15, contact centre scripts invariably began with “I’m calling on behalf of the Prime Minister”. Around the same time, Leanne Wood had done well for Plaid in the televised Leaders’ Debate, and the party changed their registration with the Electoral Commission so that ballot papers would describe them as Plaid Cymru, Leader – Leanne Wood.

These tactics, although different in their nature, had the same overriding objective – to engender a personal call to action by the Party Leader, and to make the vote choice around personality, not just political philosophy

A similar thing is happening in our politics today. Scottish and Welsh Parliament elections, together with a London Assembly poll, are not due to take place until next May. That said, the main parties are treating the pandemic as part of a long campaign. In Wales, the First Minister continued to carry on with daily press briefings long after Downing Street had stopped. A video clip of him saying that he really liked cheese went viral. He’s even appeared on radio shows where the target listener is a third of his age. It’s all designed, of course, to paint a positive picture of the man who has locked the country down, but who will still want you to vote for him next May.

The Conservatives have been professionalising personality politics for years. Anyone who has seen a Conservative video on social media will know that it often includes Boris Johnson’s signature at the end. It’s almost an American “My name’s Boris and I endorse this message”. More recently, of course, the “Eat Out to Help Out” campaign has featured Rishi Sunak very strongly. The relationship between Number 11 and Number 10 is often fraught. Boris Johnson must have an extraordinarily strong understanding with the man who became Chancellor by accident, replacing Sajid Javid just days before a crucial budget. It is an effective campaign. I’ve even noticed people in restaurants asking staff if they are participating in “Rishi’s deal”.

With Welsh Labour putting Mark Drakeford front and centre of their messaging, the Welsh Conservatives will need to play to their strengths and maybe just ask Rishi (and Boris) to pay some more visits to Wales between now and next May.

Taking Stock

Christopher Harries

Politics, is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best. As stated on the greetings post for this page, I am sceptical of devolution yet this observation by Otto von Bismarck guides my approach towards the subject. 

Despite scepticism, there is also the acceptance of reality. There is according to opinion polling presently no public appetite in Wales to overturn or do away with devolution. On this basis, the current settlement must be made to work for the people of Wales. 

So what is possible? Paul Davies MS as leader of the Welsh Conservative group in the Welsh Parliament has in recent months outlined an approach to governance in Wales that could allay some of the concerns of those sceptical of devolution. From a commitment to no further devolution to a stated desire to tackle the largesse in Cardiff Bay. There has certainly been a marked change in emphasis from that of acceptance of the status quo. Paul Davies MS and Darren Millar MS have intimated a desire for a less emollient approach to the cosy Cardiff Bay consensus and a break from the previous policy approach to devolved governance.

While such commitments to date may not go far enough for some devosceptics both deserve some credit for their willingness to change course. From rejecting devocrat proposals like increasing the number of representatives in Cardiff Bay to breaking the consensus in terms of approach to governance. There has been a concerted effort to break from the accepted form of opposition in Cardiff Bay . As a general rule if the approach you are advocating manages to irk the devocrat David Melding MS then you must be doing something right.

The attainable – the art of the next best is to change the ethos of Welsh Devolution to arrest the project of nation building. This approach coupled with the reform agenda advocated by the likes of Michael Gove could fundamentally change the dynamics in a manner that could go some way to reduce the concerns of devosceptics.

The changes should be welcomed by devosceptics as progress in the right direction rather than lambasted for not going far enough. 

Trouble Brewing

Christopher Harries

Less than a year out from the next election for the Welsh Parliament, the Welsh Conservative party is short on candidates. Aside from incumbents who have been re-adopted as a candidate, only two prospective constituency candidates have been selected ready for the election. The lack of candidates being in place could hamper the ambitions of Paul Davies MS and the Welsh Conservatives.

This lack of action in regards to the selection of candidates is not confined to just constituency seats. No action has been taken to decide the regional list placing. The absence of confirmed candidates does not just harm the chances electorally but also contributes to a febrile atmosphere within the party.

They say that the devil makes work for idle hands to do. This weekend saw a story published regarding an employee of a Welsh Conservative member of the Welsh Parliament. The story based on anonymous sources sought, in turn, to try and damage the employer. You could wonder whether there was an ulterior motive behind the story, such as discrediting a rival for the regional list placing.

The failure to conduct candidate selections risks creating an environment where potential candidates spend more time focusing on rivals rather than talking to the electorate. The situation must change if there is to be any hope of a Welsh Conservative government next year.

Where Will Next Year’s Election Be Won?

Charlie Evans

The Welsh parliament elections next year are destined to be complicated by the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic which could limit the traditional ground campaign; see a move towards increased postal voting and a near infinite number of variables on voter turnout.

The pandemic has proven that Welsh Government holds real power- it has the power to keep us under house arrest and to take away liberties as freely as it likes under the guise of public health. So this election is not the same protest vote election of old, but a cacophony of battles. The inevitable protest vote against the Westminster parties will again play its part as will perceptions of Welsh Government handling of coronavirus; opinions on the likes of Mark Drakeford whose recent PR campaign is a political gamble- as he risks pivoting from being unknown to being unliked. The latter is a far more worrying prospect than the former.

The delicate constitutional politics that has impacted Scotland in recent elections is likely to spill over into Wales for the first time, with three parties vying for the abolish vote, the Conservatives proposing a radical overhaul over business as usual, three parties seeking to abolish the very notion of Britain, the Labour Party representing the bland, boring status quo and the Liberal Democrats…well who knows.

However many of the issues above could all be a distraction- the truth is there is no tangible evidence that Wales’ electorate is any different to that of December 2019. The median Welsh voter is patriotic, Brexit-backing unionist of some shade, fairly socially conservative, economically interventionist, not dissimilar to that of England’s median voter. This is where the nationalists get it wrong- they see the median Welsh voter as this indy-loving, Celtic, EU flag waving liberal who might well be socialist. Welsh Labour is a distinctively Corbynite, pro-EU brand too. The Conservatives need to park their political tanks by the Welsh median voter, and is best-placed to form a manifesto to do so than the others.

The constituency vote could be a predictable affair, albeit again subject to the unpredictable levels of turnout. The regional list dynamic is where some serious political blood-letting could take place. Where does UKIP’s 2016 vote go? Is the UKIP-Brexit Party-Abolish bloc strong enough to win these second votes, and if so is that split going to be costly for the devosceptic parties? Can the Conservative agenda win back those UKIP 2016 votes?

On the Left, can the Welsh Greens take advantage of a Liberal Democrat movement in turmoil? Is it an election too soon for Gwlad or the Welsh National Party to start taking votes off of Plaid Cymru? Or can Welsh Labour consolidate its vote from 2016 and reverse some of the damage of 2019 and benefit from low Tory voter turnout?

With many candidates not yet selected across key seats across the political spectrum, local factors and dynamics may well also be an influence, but in national elections, parties are usually king. But a betting man would probably bank on Westminster politics probably having the biggest say over an election that has little to do with it. How that translates into votes and seats is anyone’s guess.