20 April 2023

Pity poor Wales if Michael Sheen is its saviour


There he is again, striding across the windswept landscape of rural Wales, untamed hair and beard fluttering in the gentle gwynt. It’s his voice that draws you in of course, those lilting, sing-song vowels, the drawn-out cadences, the rolled Rs, the honeyed images he conjures so effortlessly from the autocue, the blending of the two battling languages, balancing the new with the old, so reminiscent of his famous forefathers: Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Dylan Thomas, Harry Seacombe (well, perhaps not consciously so much of the latter). He is the personification of modern Wales: delusional, divided, and defensive. 

Michael Sheen is turning into a peculiarly modern prophet, a sort of John Ruskin of parochial progressivism, but lacking the intellectual breadth or cultural expansiveness. That just leaves a beard and a strange misrepresentation of an imagined past. He would have been just at home in a dark Chapel in Carmarthenshire in the 1800s, threatening the unenlightened with hell if they did not adopt his virtuous, enlightened, ways; now he goes on the One Show to complain about the Tories instead. It’s the same end, but the one is pastel coloured. 

Whenever there is a cause to promote that is self-consciously on the right side of history, and which also promotes himself and his limited, time-warped interpretation of the Principality, he is there, all hwyl and humble bragging, insulted by uninsulting things, so far above us on the moral high ground that he almost disappears from a groundling’s view. The sanctimoniousness exhibited by many on the left around Brexit reached a new pitch when Sheen announced he was returning to Wales from California to save its benighted people from the wave of ‘demagogic, fascistic’ politics that is threatening to engulf them. Quite how that has gone down with his hometown of Port Talbot, which overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU, remains unanswered, but the conversations at the Taibach Working Men’s Club would have been interesting.

His latest YouTube cameo sees him, inevitably, supporting the name change for the Brecon Beacons to Bannau Brycheiniog, a name that few understand, even fewer called for, and which nobody will use. None of that matters because in the relentless culture wars being seen to do something – anything – about redressing imagined past wrongs is just as important as actually doing something genuinely justified and popular. It’s the sort of performative action, big on gesture but empty of meaning, that would connect very strongly with an actor.

And Sheen knows what suckers the English are for a bit of Welsh rhetoric. Witness the almost orgasmic response from the panellists of ‘A League of Their Own’ when he gave a speech of nonsensical, overblown clichés about the Welsh football team beating the English in the World Cup. He is as much a walking Taffy stereotype as Max Boyce singing Bread of Heaven on match day. With his only qualification being that he once played Brian Clough in a film, Sheen did the same to motivate the players themselves. Wales lost. Life rarely imitates art when it comes to elite football.

Pity poor Wales if you find yourself saddled with saviours like this. But, then again, given the state of the nation, perhaps it is understandable that anyone who beats their three-feathered breasts to relieve them of the ongoing gloom will get an audience, even an actor with no political experience or credentials.

Because the land of my fathers is failing. You think things are bad in England? Move to Wales and stare back over the Severn Bridge with envy. The NHS in Wales is better resourced than in England, but it is much more inefficient and waiting times are consistently longer. Put simply, if you are ill, or elderly, you are more likely to die from systemic failure in Wales than in England. If you work (and, every year, fewer in the country seem able to do this) you are likely to be at least £3,000 a year worse off than workers in other parts of the UK.  And if you are young you will probably have a worse education in Wales than in England.  According to the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an analysis of attainment in 15-year-olds in over 80 countries, Welsh pupils have been behind other children in the UK for some time, and continue to be in science and mathematics, and significantly so in reading. The Welsh government’s response? To introduce new ‘made for Wales GCSEs’ which will see students spending less time on studying Chemistry, Physics, Biology and English; and there will also be fewer mathematics qualifications available. It is a dereliction of responsibility that will have long-term consequences to not just the country’s economy, but also to the life chances of its youngest people. 

Wales needs to grow up; it needs key institutions to have a set of priorities that reflect the needs and ambitions of the people, not infantilised minor actors and politicians hellbent on following their own agendas, fiddling around with place names and making YouTube videos. It needs to break from a past that romanticises anything uttered in Welsh as better, and more authentic, than the language of its more successful neighbour. It has to be less enamoured with charlatans, those professional Welshmen, who speak well but have nothing to contribute to the country other than to try to push it even more into the all-consuming culture wars.

I grew up in Wales. My family, and many of my Welsh friends, look on with despair at what the country has become since devolution. It is a place increasingly suspicious of outsiders, where its leaders want to tax the tourist trade out of existence; it is a place unable to meet the needs of its people and incapable of finding solutions to the problems it has created. Like Scotland, its people need to break free from the abusive relationship it has with the ruling party, to find a new language of hope, not a resurrected one of grievance. That start could begin by rejecting the false sheen of smooth, delusional words proffered by LA millionaires method acting sincerity before a better part becomes available.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Dr David James is Deputy Head of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.