The most obvious impact of the Covid pandemic on Welsh politics can be seen at the 160-mile border between Wales and England.
It’s porous and it’s populous – around 16 million people live within 50 miles of it.
Before Covid, there were 2.6 million journeys across it every week on average.
The busy interactions of border life could easily disguise the fact that for the last 20 years Welsh governments have pursued different policies to England on things such as schools and health.
The pandemic brought that reality home like nothing else and people like Deborah Burch have found themselves on the front line.
Deborah runs The Boat Inn in Penallt, which has nestled into the banks of the River Wye for centuries.
The Boat is also right on the border where a footbridge over the river provides a two-minute walk into England.
So Deborah’s found herself doing a lot of explaining that Covid rules are different in Wales.
“We get information from the council so we’re luckier than the customers because we sort of know what’s going on, but it’s quite hard to relay all that to the people that are coming.”
She says the pub is so close to England that customers “don’t know they’re in Wales half the time, so it does get complicated”.
After the months of a national lockdown, Deborah says Covid has raised her customers’ awareness of devolution on both sides of the border.
“I think possibly before people didn’t realise there were two governments. I think everybody’s a bit more politically aware now.”
Her staff and customers agree.
I spoke to an English couple on a walking holiday in the Wye valley who’d stopped to enjoy the scenery with a glass of wine.
“We went to north Wales earlier on in the year and everything was shut, which came as a bit of shock,” they say. “We knew about devolution, but we didn’t realise it made things so different.”
Elisha and Tom work at The Boat. They’ve found themselves serving up explanations of devolution along with pints and pub lunches.
Neither of them were old enough to vote in the last set of Welsh Parliament elections, but next year they will be.
Has the pandemic made a difference to their intention to vote?
“This has made me more likely to vote, yeah,” says Tom.
“It’s kind of shown there are some slight differences and if voting makes an impact on that, I am more likely to vote in them.”
Elisha tells me she was always planning to vote next year, but the rules “have been quite different at times so it’s definitely made things a bit clearer”.
So if the pandemic has led to an increased awareness of devolution, does that mean turnout will be higher in the elections to the Welsh Parliament next year?
Up to now, turnout in Senedd elections has never breached the 50% mark.
Laura McAllister, professor of governance at Cardiff University, warns against making assumptions.
“There are no guarantees. Knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean interest and engagement,” she says.
“There are other factors that affect turnout, like whether there is a real sense that there will be competition in that election.
“Polling suggests the three big parties all look like they could get a substantial chunk of seats, which poses really interesting questions about what kind of government we will have.
“And if that forms the conversation in the months leading up the elections, people will think ‘my vote will make a difference’.”
While we’re still in the middle of the Covid pandemic, it’s hard to draw concrete conclusions about how it’s shaping Welsh politics.
So much remains uncertain, including exactly how next May’s elections might be conducted if Covid rules are still in place.
But the voters will, as they always do, provide us with some answers.
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From street to office
What to Do When Your Coworker Brings Up Politics – Harvard Business Review
Political topics have always been challenging in the workplace, but never more than now. In the past, the goal was to avoid escalation. Today the conversation often starts heated. Furthermore, they can feel unavoidable, especially if they’re sprung on you with no warning.
For example, imagine you’re on a Zoom call discussing accelerating a project deadline when your colleague, “Ned,” says, “This is a product release, not a vaccine.” And that was the fourth time in just this meeting he has laced his comments with politics. You can tell others feel he’s not just making jokes but pushing his opinions. What should you do?
No one wants to get into a heated debate with their coworkers, especially over Zoom or the phone. Fortunately, there are ways to venture into these topics that both yield a much higher likelihood of healthy dialogue, and leave you an exit path if it appears that’s not possible. I’ve found it’s possible to talk openly about far more controversial issues than we usually think, as long as you bring three things to the conversation: curiosity, boundaries, and humility.
Years ago in London, I hailed a taxi for the 45-minute trip from the Gatwick airport to my hotel. After I informed the driver of my destination, he turned to face me and said, “You have an American accent. Are you American?”
“Yes,” I responded.
His eyes grew wide, he craned his neck to look back at me, and with great vehemence yelled a curse on the U.S. President.
It was late at night. I was tired. I weighed my willingness to engage in an energetic conversation and as I considered ignoring the comment I thought, “I should be able to do this. I should be able to talk to someone with a strong opinion even if I don’t fully agree.”
“Not too worried about your tip, I take it?” I said and smiled at his eyes in the mirror.
He broke into a broad grin, but it quickly disappeared. He repeated his curse a second time. Then he quickly moved into a lengthy indictment of U.S. foreign policy. His voice got louder and his face redder the more he spoke. He paused only long enough to draw a breath and it was clear he had more than 45 minutes’ worth of material he intended to share.
Ironically, I was in London to lecture about a book I had recently co-authored about politically and emotionally risky conversation. Given my itinerary, I felt a special obligation to practice what I was about to preach. So, I committed to attempt turning the remaining 40 minutes into a meaningful dialogue.
Remarkably, it worked. Of course, I knew once I got to my hotel that I wouldn’t have to see the driver again, but I was still invested in having a civil, and even productive, conversation. Next time you find yourself drawn into a discussion with someone who has strong political views, whether it’s a stranger or your colleague from another department, here are the three things you want to bring with you.
Our temptation when someone comes on strong is to either shut down or amp up. We might withdraw into silence, feigning attention while seething in quiet judgment; or we fight for space, matching or exceeding the others’ provocative certainty. Both approaches produce more heat than light.
The way to turn conflict into conversation begins with curiosity. Curiosity is a virtue that need only to be practiced to be passed. It’s remarkable to see how quickly a debate deescalates when one party begins sincerely inquiring into the views of the other. And there almost always comes a point when the one being authentically heard involuntarily reciprocates.
For example, once your call ends, you could invite Ned to hang on the connection for a moment. Then start with something like, “Hey Ned, four times in the meeting you made comments that sounded like you were expressing your political views. If at some point you want to discuss those, I’m all ears.”
You don’t have to renounce your views in order to practice curiosity. All you have to do is set them aside. Don’t worry, you can pick them back up as soon as the conversation is done. But if you’re simultaneously clutching yours while conversing about others’, you’ll do justice to neither task. You shouldn’t consider your curiosity satisfied until you see the integrity of their position: how the experiences, perspective, and information they bring leads sensibly to the conclusion they hold.
The problem with Ned’s offhanded comments in your meeting is the fact that he was turning a business meeting into a political platform. As you invite Ned into a conversation, you should also ask him to honor meeting boundaries. Assuming Ned shows an interest in sharing his views with you, you should first add, “And Ned, can I ask that in the future you avoid those kinds of comments in our meetings? That’s not the time or place for it. Okay?”
Setting boundaries at the beginning of a conversation is also helpful if you’re worried it might go off the rails. Before jumping into opinions, first, set the table. Ask for agreement on some boundaries, or ground rules that will keep things civil and balanced. Even people who disagree wildly about specific policies can usually agree quickly on simple rules of civil discourse. And if you gain their agreement before emotions escalate, they’ll often self-monitor in a way that keeps things somewhat healthy. And if they don’t, be sure you set a boundary about how you’ll handle it when someone violates the other rules.
Here’s how I set the table for a conversation with my taxi driver. I didn’t wait for him to pause as I didn’t sense one was coming anytime soon. Instead, I patted the back of his seat to interrupt him, and made him a proposition.
“I’m very interested in hearing your views,” I said. “I may agree with some of them but disagree with others. But I want equal time. Tell you what, can we agree that you get the first 10 minutes, then I get the next 10 minutes? If either of us gets too angry at the other, we’ll stop and ride quietly to my hotel. If it goes well, we might both be a little smarter when we’re done. Deal?”
He laughed heartily, turned to face me full on and said, “That’s a deal.”
If you come to the conversation curious, you will almost always leave smarter. But only if you bring the third ingredient: humility.
It’s rare that when you begin to genuinely inquire into others’ experiences that you don’t find things that surprise you, teach you, and improve you. The sobering truth is that we don’t arrive at many of our most cherished opinions starting with a blank page. Whether we are Christian or Muslim, conservative or liberal, prefer Coke or Pepsi, our ideas are shaped more by the groups we identify with than the facts we sift through.
When we listen sincerely to others, we’re often humbled as we recognize how fragile the foundation of our own convictions can be. When that happens, have the integrity to concede those points. The more you point out areas of agreement, especially ones that involve relinquishing of previously cherished “facts,” the more likely the other person is to feel safe doing the same.
Ten minutes into my taxi ride, I was loath to interrupt the driver for my turn. I was so struck with the insight I was gaining seeing my country’s foreign policy from a 12,000-kilometer distance that I didn’t want to stop. I don’t know that my taxi-driver friend ended up seeing the world any differently when we were done with that ride, but I did. Not that my opinions were profoundly altered, but they became nuanced in a way that I was grateful for.
The same will happen with Ned if you are truly humble. Don’t approach the conversation with a goal of passing judgment. Approach it with the goal of understanding how Ned’s world works. If you do this well, you’ll begin to see how, given the information and experiences he has, he would come to the conclusions he holds. Feelings of derision are evidence that my motive is to convert not to learn.
Next time you cringe with apprehension when a colleague seems intent on bringing politics into a workplace conversation, take a breath. Then replace your judgment with curiosity. Consider putting up boundaries that move the conversation to the proper time and place, increase the likelihood of balanced dialogue, and provide an off ramp if needed. Swap certainty for humility. Perhaps these practices won’t immediately bring about world peace, but they’ll certainly increase the likelihood of meaningful conversation at work.
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