As someone who plies their trade in political philosophy, it is second nature to be sceptical of theories that make ambitious or wide-ranging claims; one of the more prominent theories of this kind in recent years has espoused the idea that people in particular generations — most particularly the millenials — share a number of character traits.
To suppose that potentially millions of people will have a similar outlook on key aspects of life on the basis of their year of birth is intuitively somewhat questionable. However, there are occasions where I find myself admitting there is self-evidently a kernel of truth to the idea that the generational factor plays a role. Attitudes to the environment, would be one obvious example where this may seem to hold true.
A more specific issue that has been playing on my mind recently is the effects of such a gap on the attitude of left-wing voters in Wales, and their view of the United Kingdom. I suspect that I feel this particularly keenly because my own year of birth falls on the cusp between the transition from Generation X to the Millenials — and I often find myself falling between two stools, or at least sympathizing with what I consider to be two different perspectives.
The one, looking back, is grounded in the experience of my parents’ generation, the baby boomers, and the immense changes and emancipation wrought by the new world that emerged from the ruins of the second world war — and of course, the welfare state and world of opportunity that was partly created by post-war Labour governments. Those who grew into adulthood in the 50s, 60s and early 70s had opportunities that generations before — and increasingly, generations since — can only dream of. For the lower and middle classes of Wales, these changes created comparative economic security and opened up pathways into relative prosperity and even the upper echelons of British society.
This experience of a dynamic, meritocratic, comparatively egalitarian society has lived long in the memory and has, I would suggest, not only remained a significant constituent part of the lens through which the baby boomers view the UK. It has also been reproduced amongst many of their children who’s upbringing would have been conditioned by this historical memory and who (despite the beginning of the dislocation of this UK) were able to a certain degree to enjoy the fruits of its fragmenting structures. For many a labour voter of a certain age this now historical ideal represents the hope for the future and continues to justify the belief in a Britain that can be reformed and that can take us back to a prosperous and fairer society. Our best hope in Wales is to move forward to the past, and the success of Corbyn’s Labour in the 2017 General Election I believe reflects that world view.
Contrast this, if you will, with the view of those born after, let’s say, 1984. These are people who came into adulthood (and who probably developed their political consciousness) during the outbreak of the War on Terror, a massively unpopular conflict pursued by a Labour Government. Moreover, not long after being thrust into the world of work a monumental financial crisis began to unfold, before the onset of grim, cruel austerity, and the outbreak of a demented political project called Brexit.
At best they will have enjoyed 1 or 2 adults years around the turn of the millennium when Britain seemed bright and the reformation of the state seemed possible. They would not even have in their memories the historic struggle of the miners and the possibility of heroic protest as inspiration to seek another world. A subdued society with little solidarity, protest or industrial struggle where the phrase There Is No Alternative has largely been the lived reality. The ideal that sustained the hope of their parents must have appeared to them as the shadows in Plato’s cave. For one brief moment of hope, of course, Corbynism promised to demonstrate the actual concrete existence of the ideal, but the unfolding of the Brexit crisis has dulled that vision once more.
At the same time, we must also consider the impact of devolution on the psyche. Many of those who are older will have a political consciousness influenced in part, at least, by the memory of a unitary British state with a working-class bound by unions and class consciousness, and a period post ’79 referendum when the notion of a devolved Wales seemed light years away, after that humbling defeat. This recollection, and the narrowness of the victory that wrought change in ’97, has left the older generation always mindful of the precarious base on which the project has been built, as well as the fact that most have never really inverted their political outlook in a way that draws them to Welsh rather than British politics first.
For millenials, the view is somewhat different, with a devolved Wales being a political reality they have always occupied, whilst experiencing the growing legitimacy, confidence, and authority of Cardiff Bay. With the disaster of ’79 an almost forgotten chapter in our history, and Wales coming first in many senses, devolution as a process seems far more like an inevitable movement away from dependence to self-determination within a co-sovereign UK (or more complete autonomy in view of the self-destructive proclivities of Westminster at the moment).
The significance of the Senedd and the Wales-centred institutions that have sprung up around it in the three sectors cannot be underestimated. Read various theories of nationalism from John Stuart Mill to John Rawls and you will see that it is shared (and respected) political institutions that are regarded as key to the creation and preservation of the nation-state. The pre-millenials grew up in a Wales where myth, Cyfraith Hywel and cultural institutions provided no real substitute for this in the collective memory, and their lack of a Welsh political consciousness compared to their Scottish peers reflected this. To put it bluntly, millenials don’t have the same centuries-old chip on their shoulder.
Some of these thoughts have crystallized for me in talking to and getting a sense of their view of Britain. It has become increasingly clear to me that many of those younger, Welsh, politically engaged individuals — who are inclined to align themselves with Labour politics — see the British state in a very different way. In crude terms, what has it ever done for them? Its most lasting achievement in Wales, the creation of the Assembly, was ushered in by a New Labour project that — despite making life significantly materially better — failed to produce the transformative change that post-industrial Wales had been seeking since Thatcher.
The somewhat empty promises of the Third Way, combined with the new world of devolution has inevitably meant that in today’s Broken Britain (finally this phrase has real currency) the most promising alternative for many has now become further distancing from a state that in the memory of millenials will have largely disappointed them. On a more positive note, it has also been remarked that the Senedd represents a genuine sense that politics can be done differently, and for those who have spent time in England the differences with respect to austerity, for example, highlight how the political culture of a more autonomous Wales might create far greater things.
Given all these considerations, it does not surprise me that many of the brightest sparks in the Labour Party under 35 are at the very least radical federalists. Neither does it surprise me, in this time of crisis for the UK state, that the latest polling in Wales shows a rise in support of Plaid Cymru amongst those under 54. The British heyday of the 1960s is a very distant memory even for those who may have a dim childhood recollection of it, and many in that age bracket will be closely attuned to the fragmentation of their children’s present and future. Moreover, it has become increasingly clear that being ‘good Brits’ no longer works for Wales, when we have seen so many promises of investment and our voice in Brexit negotiations overlooked.
In this context, many in Welsh Labour are weighing up the options, considering the questions fundamental to Wales’ place in the UK, EU and the wider world. Indeed this new context has seen a handful of younger members coalesce around a group called the Welsh Labour Representation Group, seeking to promote discussion around Wales’ constitutional status whilst asking the simple question “How best are the people of Wales represented?” In this time of rupture in Westminster politics, both within and outside the party, the presumption that a Westminster Labour government is the only obvious or realistic answer, can no longer be the assumed response.
Dr. Huw Williams is a Labour member and academic at Cardiff University.