Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Towards a referendum

Translation of an article by Richard Wyn Jones in the December-January edition of Barn. Originally posted on ORDOVICIUS

That didn't take long, did it? When the new legislative system for a devolved Wales was introduced just eighteen months ago, there were a few of us already predicting that it would be bound to lead to a confrontation between London and Cardiff; to constant interfering on the banks of the Thames and deep frustration on the banks of the Bay. 'What rot, you're raising spectres', was the response of some of our most prominent political leaders. Wasn't there even one highly respected constitutional expert willing to swear that everything would go smoothly?

Now hardly any of those voices are being raised in defence of the LCO system. The fears of the doubting Thomases have been realised. The new system has proved to be unforgivably long-winded and complex. On top of which it is wholly obvious that fears regarding the possibility of 'double scrutiny' have come true. By now the Welsh Affairs Select Committee is acting as a de facto second chamber to the National Assembly. It could be argued, indeed, that Alun Michael (yes, him again!) and David Jones, the two most prominent members of the Select Committee, are now more influential figures in the Assembly's legislative process than any backbencher of the Assembly itself; certainly they are much more powerful than the two AMs who represent the same constituencies as them, namely Lorraine Barret and Darren Millar. If this kind of situation continues, then it won't be an exageration to say that the democratic mandate of the Assembly will be undermined.

Consider for example what the consequence of a Conservative government in London would be - and I still expect to see the Conservative Party to forming or leading the British government by June 2010. If that happens, the Tories will have an automatic majority on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, despite them not being the largest party in Wales. You don't need to be a prophet to predict that this would spay the Assembly. You don't need that much imagination either to foresee the tensions that would arise as a result.

Of course, Rhodri Morgan understands this perfectly. His strategy, it seems, is to try to persuade Paul Murphy to create a 'parliamentary convention' that will mean the Welsh Government can rely on Westminster to pass those LCOs that are needed for the Welsh Government to implement the political programme that is its foundation. Perhaps indeed what will happen, with Orders being drafted in a strict way in order to implement the exact letter of the programme, and not an iota more - at least not in controversial areas. But Rhodri Morgan is also an experienced enough politician to realise that this is not a long-term solution. On the whole such a parliamentary convention would be a fickle thing agreed to in private in order to ease the internal relations of one party. Does anyone seriously expect that a Select Committee chaired by the Conservatives would be bound by such a convention if the Welsh Government requested powers to implement a policy that is contrary to Tory beliefs?

Unfortunately, publicly at least, there is no sign that Rhodri Morgan is seeking anything other than a short term solution to the problem. The problem will be inherited by his successor as leader of the Welsh Labour Party. But it would be pointless to expect any guidance from those who are preparing to fight for the right to succeed him. Rather than challenge the Welsh MPs, the likelihood is that those very MPs will play an important role in the electoral college that will elect the new leader, meaning the candidates will be going out of their way to pet and pamper them.

As for the Tories, the Roberts report, a report described to me as 'a twenty-five thousand word stream of consciuosness' by somebody who should know - has killed any hope for a sensible solution. It appears that the conclusions of Roberts' recommendations will be to uphold the LCO system despite everything the Conservative spokesperson had to day regarding the way that system was drawn up: not in the interests of Wales, but in order to bridge the Labour Party's internal split on the matter of devolution. Once again, you don't need to be a prophet to foresee the Conservatives will one day regret Wyn Roberts' lack of a strategic vision.

What is to be done then? According to Adam Price and Bethan Jenkins, it is time to begin a Yes Campaign for the referendum promised in the One Wales coalition agreement. I disagree. The terrible truth of the matter is that Welsh politics remains subserviant to the rhythms of British politics. There is no hope of starting a Yes Campaign of any substance or value before the British general election. There won't be any cross-party cooperation until that political battle has been resolved. On top of which, until we know with any certainty what the result will be, it's hard to know how exactly to craft the message of any campaign. Indeed, by trying to begin it now, there's the danger that the cause in favour of real devolution will be connected too closely with Plaid Cymru, and with that party alone. Adam Price and Bethan Jenkins hardly need to be reminded of the disatrous results that such a situation had thirty years ago.

Yes, the present constitutional system is wholly insufficient. But no, there isn't a lot we can do about it right now, beyond the important work of drawing attention to all its shortcomings and weaknesses. I realise there isn't much consolation here for anyone who wants an intelligent governmental system for Wales. Nonetheless, that is the reality, and at the moment intuition - seeing things as they are - is much more valuable than embracing reassuring false hopes.

Yes, it would have been wonderful if Part 3 of the Government of Wales Act - the part of the act which forms the basis for the LCO system - had given birth to an effective, transparent and sustainable legislative system. But it was obvious to those who possess some political savvy that that would not happen. The system was defective from the word go, and no attempt at singing its praise would compensate for these shortcomings. And so it was. Looking to the future, at the beginning of a new year, I wonder if I may suggest the following resolutiion for our political leaders? From now on how about adopting a more realistic attitude towards our governmental system?

Yes, there were real and significant gains as a result of the National Assembly's first years of imaginative creativity - or the post-Alun Michael years to be more precise. But it was matters to do with the internal organisation of the Assembly itself that were in the balance: matters that aren't of much interest to anyone outside Cardiff. By now, however, we have moved to a very different political world, a world were Alun Michael is once again a power in the Assembly's internal life. It is now a stubborn struggle between the Assembly and Welsh MPs for power (we should remember that the majority of other MPs couldn't care less). Winning that struggle will depend on having a tactical and strategic vision, and the ability to take advantage of the opportunities that arise. There will hardly be any victory if our leaders continue to insist on seeing things as they'd like them to be rather than as they are. Let the disappointment of the LCO system be a lesson to them.


Thatcher's Child said...

Roll on the gravy train!

It will be interesting to see if the Tories get the blame for Wales's demise when the EU funding runs out in 2013?

Anonymous said...

A better idea would be to break up the uk.Lets have independance for all,not just welsh and scots.
I foolishly though of myself as british,not any more after living in those countries.

Anonymous said...

I must say, i always thought devolution was just a sneaky way of getting twice as many jobs for politicians.

Anonymous said...

What's the point of Westminster having a Welsh Affairs Select Committee?

But then, what's the point of having a Minister for London?

Anonymous said...

Have to say I am all for powers being devolved away from Cardiff down to county level. Cardiff is a very remote place to most of wales.

Anonymous said...

sod 'em. kick them out. they all vote ZaNulab.

Anonymous said...

If Wales and Scotland want true independence (and NI for that matter) then off they go. On the strict understanding there is no money at all for them from England... on any basis. Not ever. Zilch. Nada (etc)

Anonymous said...

It's about time the English were allowed a referendum on independence, they pick up the bill for all these devolved talking shops yet are never consulted on whether they want to continue subsidising them. If Scotland and Wales are to have further law-making powers, then they should pay for the consequences of their legislation and not expect the English to pick up the tab.

Anonymous said...

Wales and Scotland don't actually get that much money from England. Their money comes from the EU.

The GDP for Wales is only about £4Bn, or 2 aircraft carriers!

It isn't exactly big.

Anonymous said...

No but their hatred of us is.

Anonymous said...

I was born in North Wales and am therefore technically Welsh, but strongly believe that we're all British (not European!). Please don't think we're all like the small-minded Taffies down South.

As an aside, isn't it fascinating that the Guardian readers find Scottish/Welsh/Irish nationalism so appealing, yet fear English nationalism as some kind of extremism?

Anonymous said...

This is like a dream come true. Independence for England within my lifetime, for my children and grandchildren to benefit by not being tied to the anti-English so-Celtic fringes.
I wish my father was alive now, to enjoy it. Hell, I wish my grandparents were as well. They would be whooping with joy.
The future looks rosy. English Rose(y), that is.
Thank you, Labour. Without the Scottish racists in your ranks, and the British Imperialists, none of this would have been possible.

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