Welsh devolution needs saving from itself

Devolution in Wales is in danger of stagnating. Since 1998, the initial settlement implemented by New Labour has been altered – but changes have not been substantial in scope. Thus, politicians operating within this constricted framework fail to radically critique or question the existing parameters of devolution. This is reflected in a paradoxical attitudes towards the Senedd. Turnout at devolved elections is continually poor, yet surveys show a strong demand for the transfer of more powers. The way such a conundrum is tackled is thus crucial to the success or otherwise of devolution.

Any reader that has been to an Eisteddfod will have seen just how important cultural self-expression is to Wales. It therefore begs the question as to why devolution has so far avoided elucidating a political vision for Wales separate from that of England. In part, the answer can be attributed to the ambivalence of the Welsh people, for the greater part of the twentieth-century, towards the idea of Home Rule.

Centuries of political rule at English hands meant politics never featured as largely in the national consciousness as it did in Ireland, then Scotland. The Cymru Fydd movement of the early 1900s came to nothing – as did the recommendations of the 1973 Kilbrandon Commission, its proposal for legislative devolution to Wales overwhelmingly rejected by Welsh citizens in a 1979 plebiscite.

Even when Wales did get devolution (albeit by the slimmest of margins – 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent) in 1997, the extent to which the new National Assembly for Wales could legislate autonomously was limited. Essentially, all it got powers-wise, were those that hitherto resided with the Welsh Office. Indeed, the Assembly’s location for the first seven years of its existence, the unassumingly drab Tŷ Hywel, could justifiably be said to have mirrored both the scope, and the tone of discourse ascertaining to devolution. In 2000, then First Minister, Rhodri Morgan admitted that debates were “like watching paint dry”, while very few politicians called for the Senedd to become more ambitious with regard to its legislative remit.

Welsh devolution acquired a new home in 2006 – a stunning glass building constructed as a “transparent envelope”, so claimed chief architect, Richard Rogers. However, devolved politics still failed to capture Wales’ imagination. In the 2011 Assembly election, turnout barely exceeded 40 percent. What then, is responsible for such apathy? Any answer cannot escape from the ramifications of the original piecemeal devolution settlement: Welsh politics still has the feel of a glorified county council because of the deficiencies encapsulated within this. The 2006, 2011, and 2014 amendments to the 1998 Government of Wales Act have not transferred any powers to the Assembly insofar as areas such as energy and revenue raising are concerned. Flaws of this ilk make the Senedd vulnerable to the charge that it is little more than a ‘dumping ground’ for ‘second-rate’ politicians.

Yet a paradox emerges when one takes into account how some 43 percent of Welsh citizens believe that the Assembly “should have more powers than it currently has”. Welsh politicians are ergo confronted with the situation where turnout at Assembly elections is more or less constant at the 40-45 percent mark, but represent a population willing to give the institution greater legislative authority.

What therefore becomes of the utmost importance is how to bridge the gap between apathy when it comes to the ballot box, and channelling the desire for more devolution. The solution lies in giving Wales a similar settlement to Scotland, where its legislature has the ability to alter the rate of income tax independently of Westminster. Such a prerogative would encourage Welsh citizens to look at the Senedd as a ‘grown up’ institution. As it stands, though, this regrettably will not happen in the near feature.

The current crop of Assembly politicians are too ambivalent towards devolution. That the Welsh Secretary, Alun Cairns, felt confident enough to assert that agreement could easily be reached between Westminster and Cardiff Bay regarding the 2016 Wales Bill indicates that the balance of power is still tilted in favour of the former. A rethink of devolution’s structural boundaries is needed, but even Plaid Cymru have abandoned most of its strands of radical constitutionalism for a political stance which can be best surmised as ‘give Wales more money’ – in essence base identity politics at its most crass.

The problem facing Welsh devolution is the intellectual timidity of the politicians that currently populate the Senedd. It therefore feels quite apt to end with the case of Leighton Andrews. A notoriously abrasive personality, he incurred the venom of both colleagues and opponents alike during stints as Education Minister, and Public Services Minister. Defeat at the hands of Leanne Wood in May this year deprived the Senedd of an intellectual giant. In past monographs, his arguments prefigured the strand of thought that has begun to advocate more devolution as a means by which to invigorate the torpor of Welsh politics.

Amongst these arguments, though, has to be the understanding that to make further devolution a reality, all legislative agency must be granted via the agreement of the Westminster government. Thus, a self-defeating cycle materialises: to persuade Westminster that the Welsh Assembly needs more powers, demonstrating that the public demand is there is key – yet the turnouts that characterise Assembly elections do nothing to convince Westminster this is the case. Conversely, opinion polls do suggest an untapped preference for devolution.

The onus therefore is on Wales’ politicians to break free of their intellectual shackles, and to present a broad, imaginative idea of devolution to tap into that sentiment.

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