Monday 7 March 2022

Ignorance as a qualification?


Last week, the Welsh Secretary, Simon Hart, told us that he wished Wales hadn’t been able to set its own rules for handling Covid. In itself, the idea that an Anglo-British nationalist wants Wales and Scotland to do as they’re told rather than follow their own paths is about as newsworthy as the revelation that the Pope is a Catholic. In support of his position, he argued that “if you look at all of the measurements of success or failure, … actually there was precious little difference between England and Wales”. It’s one of those statements which has the veneer of truth, but where the situation is actually rather more complicated.

Leaving aside the fact that no-one could have known in advance whether different approaches would lead to different outcomes (which makes his statement a rationalisation after the event, rather than a reason for not allowing differences in the first place), one of the reasons for the differences in outcomes being small was that the English government constrained the ability of Wales to be more different, by, for example, only making furlough available when England needed it. There is also a danger in his use of headline figures, because – as the Welsh health minister has pointed out – a country with an older and often sicker population and higher levels of poverty would expect to lose a higher proportion of its vulnerable people to a pandemic where the death rate amongst those groups is higher. The very fact that the outcome was similar could itself be taken as at least a partial vindication of the Welsh approach. Statistics need to be interpreted with caution, rather than just looking at the headline figure, although, in fairness, Hart is probably just following the cavalier attitude of his boss. But leaving the numbers to one side, one thing which has stood out throughout the pandemic – and I suspect that this is what really irks Hart and his colleagues – is that the approach of Mark Drakeford and the Welsh government has been overwhelmingly supported by people in Wales, who are well able to tell the difference between a government trying its best (even if it didn’t always succeed) to keep people safe, and one more concerned for the profits of its friends and donors.

More shocking to me was the claim by Hart that, despite having been an MP for a Welsh constituency for 9 years before being appointed to the Cabinet, he had never heard of the Barnett formula. That really is an astounding admission to make, although it was probably part of what qualified him – in Johnson’s mind at least – to take on the job. Looking around the cabinet table, it is easy to conclude that ignorance is a qualification under the current regime rather than an impediment. On the other hand it could just be that whatever some of those providing him with cash were after, it wasn’t a detailed knowledge of Wales or its finances.

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