Reading notes: Geraint Talfan Davies’s ‘At Arm’s Length’
I can’t pretend to be an impartial reviewer of this book. I’ve got to know Geraint TD (as he’s widely known) quite well over the last few years, through Tomorrow’s Wales and the Institute of Welsh Affairs, and esteem him highly. This book is, in form, a slightly uncomfortable mixture of ‘recollections’ or memoirs, and ‘reflections’ or musings on matters of interest and importance – but despite that it’s also an important set of reflections on the development of Wales in the last 20 years or so.
Geraint has never been elected to political office; nonetheless, he has played a very important role in Welsh public life (and politics) during that time. He played a major role in setting up HTV Wales, and after a spell with Tyne Tees TV in Newcastle became Controller of BBC Wales. Since formally retiring, he has been chairman of Welsh National Opera, chairman of the Arts Council of Wales, and (after being unseated by former culture minister Alun Pugh) returned to chair WNO. He’s also been chairman of the Institute of Welsh Affairs since 1992. He’s played a very considerable role in Wales’s cultural and public life, and his recollections of what happened in each of these positions are very interesting. It shouldn’t be a surprise that, as well as its other merits, the book is very nicely written – although Geraint spent most of his working life in broadcasting, he trained as a print journalist on the Western Mail in its heyday.
One memorable nugget concerns the effect of devolution within broadcasting. Geraint quotes Anne Sloman, formerly political adviser to the BBC, saying on referendum night in September 1997 when support for devolution was showing poorly that things ‘didn’t look good for BBC Wales’. He then estimates that devolution resulted in an extra £20 million being spent on broadcasting in Wales by the BBC and HTV together (though it’s not clear whether this is a total figure, an annual one or what).
What is probably most interesting, though, is the breadth of perspective that Geraint brings. He’s able to tell a story that includes developments often missing from more conventional accounts of devolved politics. He covers his time at the Arts Council in considerable (perhaps excessive) detail, trying to explain what difficulties he faced there and what he and his colleagues were seeking to achieve, in the face of a confused approach and policy from the Assembly Government which was seeking to light the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ for – well, the reason was never at all clear. Geraint’s account of this period struck me as admirably fair, despite his understandable unhappiness about what happened. What’s interesting reading it, though, is how misconceived the Assembly Government’s policy was. The Arts Council may have been an Assembly Sponsored Public Body, but it had two paymasters – WAG for revenue funding, but it was also a National Lottery distributor, with a line of accountability to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in London as well. WAG was distinctly slow in working out obvious issues – what it did and didn’t have legal powers to do, and what the implications of particular courses of action would be on stakeholders within Wales and further afield – even without the flaws of having an ill-thought-through policy.
Books like this are important in a number of ways. Most important, they show from the point of view of someone with a ringside seat how much Wales has changed in the last 3 decades or so; the growth of distinctively Welsh institutions, and a distinctively Welsh set of experiences of what the state does and how it does it as a result. Geraint doesn’t shirk the task of pointing out the problems that have arisen with post-devolution policy as well as its virtues. He charts the evolution of Welshness from a cultural phenomenon, through the development of institutions needed to give that culture a tangible form in the modern world, into something manifesting itself in distinct politics and policy as well. It’s a tale that vividly illustrates not only Ron Davies’s maxim that devolution is a process not an event, but how long a process that has been, starting way before 1997 or even 1979.