This week marks twenty years since Wales narrowly voted for a semblance of self-respect.
Wales voted Yes to establish a National Assembly in Cardiff in September 1997, and establish the first democratically elected national body in Wales since… ever.
A lot has been written and said about it this week. Commentators, politicians, journalists, and academics have been asked to write opinion pieces for various publications.
There seems to be a common thread, best summed up by psephologist and academic, Roger Scully,
“It’s crap, but it’s our crap” seems a fair assessment of the attitudes of many in Wales to their devolved institutions.”
And it’s true.
Devolution, or at least the kind conferred on us by London (there’s no point splitting hairs here between the various Labour and Tory Government’s that have been in power at UK level since 1997, because MPs and Governments of both parties have failed miserably to live up to the demands of the people of Wales when it comes to proper devolution) has not made a material difference to the quality of people’s lives in Wales.
In a fierce critique of the Welsh political establishment, Ron Davies, the man credited with being the architect of Welsh devolution, said,
“My attitude towards devolution was that we needed constitutional change – and we needed constitutional change to address the issues of democracy, of accountability, bringing government closer to the people and so on.
“But all of that was for a purpose. It wasn’t just constitutional change for its own sake. It was so that a new institution could deliver better outcomes for the people of Wales…
“On the outcomes, however, I’m very much afraid to say that they have been very, very disappointing.
“When I envisaged that institution, I saw it doing things to improve the real life of the people of Wales – not just in terms of their democratic accountability, but in terms of better jobs, better lifestyle, better opportunities.
“And I think if you look at economic development, if you look at housing and planning, if you look at the health service, if you look at education over the last 20 years, it’s difficult to see any initiative which has come from the Assembly which has been based on a realistic assessment of the problems we face, or to see a realistic manifesto to change them for the better.”
Sadly the data proves him right.
The Wales Governance Centre under the direction of Professor Roger Scully (yes, him again) carried out research into attitudes to Devolution and its impact on their lives, as they asked respondents what the impact of devolution was on a variety of topics.
In each case, Living standards, education, and health, the vast majority (approximately two-thirds) said that devolution had had no impact or didn’t know. And in each case aarger percentage thought devolution had resulted in a decline, especially in health, than the percentage that thought devolution had resulted in a positive effect.
Far be it for me to question a professional psephologist but it should be noted that this line of questioning (the impact of devolution on e.g. health) confuses the devolution process with Government policies. After all it’s Government policies that close community hospitals, or introduce new school curriculums. Then again, the National Assembly for Wales has never known any other Government but a Labour one.
In many respects this fact alone renders any exercise in trying to measure the effectiveness of devolution futile, because it’s impossible to separate it from Labour. Until we get at least one term with Labour out of Government then it’s impossible to quantify the real impact and effect of devolution.
But this in itself poses huge problems for our fledgling Parliament. Labour’s failures could bring the National Assembly down with them.
However, the good news is that while the Welsh Government have demonstrably failed to deliver any quantifiable benefits to the people of Wales, the National Assembly, or devolution, is here to stay. It is “the settled will of the Welsh people” , or as veteran BBC journalist Huw Edwards puts it, “devolved Government… is here to stay”.
Opinion poll after opinion poll shows that the people of Wales supports the National Assembly or believes that it should be strengthened,
“Support for devolution and the National Assembly has grown significantly in Wales.
“In 1997 the vote in favour was very close, but a BBC Wales St David’s Day poll in 2017 had 73% of people either saying the Assembly’s powers should be increased or were sufficient.
So this is the puzzle.
Data tells us that the people of Wales support the Institution, and might want to see it strengthened. Yet the Government, that get voted in time and again by those same people, have failed to deliver.
Furthermore, as we celebrate twenty years of devolution, Westminster is making a blatant attempt at a power grab, attempting to claim back for itself powers which are currently held by the European Parliament, but which should, once the Brexit agreements are complete, be brought back to Wales, devolved powers such as those over agriculture, fisheries, or the environment. Yet the Conservatives in Westminster will take control of these powers once the UK exits the EU, making Wales subservient once again to London’s demands. The National Assembly’s Chief Legal Adviser has already said that this could mean that
‘London could step in and make law for Wales on devolved matters’.
What a funny lot we are in Wales today:
- We support devolution and would probably like to see more powers
- But we think that our Government are doing a bad job, and is holding us back
- Yet we re-elect the same Government time after time
- We don’t want to see the Assembly lose any powers
- Yet we vote for Brexit with the Conservatives in charge
- And Brexit with the Conservatives in charge will result in powers being taken away from the National Assembly
As a nation we’re all over the shop. It’s a complete hotchpotch.
But take away the terminology, the jargon, the politics, and all the noise, and one thing is clear. We want to be answerable for our own affairs, but are currently too afraid to demand it.
We intuitively understand the need for answerability and taking responsibility for our own affairs. As was said at the start of this piece we understand and value responsibility, “it might be crap, but it’s our crap”.
We can see that the status quo is failing us. We know that we’re being sold down the river, and we don’t like it. We like the little freedoms that we do get, and sense that it could and should be so much more, but we just can’t bring ourselves to identify the culprit that’s pinning us down and see him for who he is.
It’s a classic case of the Stockholm syndrome, when the abused or the one taken captive develops an affinity with the abuser, or the captor.
Making sense of any of these inconsistencies can only come about through self-determination. Amidst all of the noise and claptrap there’s a growing awareness of the need to bring responsibility back to the people of Wales. It’s our duty. If we are to live up to Ron Davies’ honourable vision of improving the real lives of the people of Wales, then we must demand the powers in order to achieve those aspirations.
The current establishment, has taken every opportunity to crush those demands. Both the Conservatives and Labour will only respond to what they deem as a political catastrophe. An actual or a perceived collapse in the established political order. If that’s the case, then that’s what we must do. That’s the only thing they understand.
Further reading on the twentieth anniversary of Devolution in Wales: