One country, two prisms

The law-making powers referendum debate is revolving around the Assembly’s record and on that the views are very different, writes Rhys David






Vote Yes or No on 3 March

It was not Kennedy v. Nixon, Obama v. McCain or even Cameron v. Clegg v. Brown but as Welsh confrontations go it had its moments. Mark Drakeford (Bay Mandarin turned academic) against Paul (Where are our Welsh innovators?) Matthews in a Cardiff University debate on the law making powers referendum due to be held on Thursday, in front of an overwhelmingly male audience in the Edwardian splendour of the former Glamorgan County authority’s council chamber.

Referendum Week

This week Wales will decide whether or not to give the National Assembly more powers. Tomorrow Rachel Banner argues that the devolution trends following a Yes vote would take us in the direction of a fundamental constitutional realignment. On Wednesday, Carolyn Hitt will argue that having laws that only apply to Wales should only be made in Wales.

Anyone wanting just the facts – and there were, it would seem, a few of those in the 50 strong audience – would, however, have still come away confused. Wales had made enormous progress in 10 years, according to Mark Drakeford, after 500 years of non-domestic rule. The Welsh economy in the 10 years up to 2008 had grown faster than that of the UK and created proportionately more jobs. Pupils’ attainments had improved on previous levels and furthermore university students were not going to be crippled by debt, nor was the economy being hamstrung by rapacious mortgage deals with Private Finance Initiative contractors. Wales had also secured a major transfer of housing tenancies to tenant co-operatives and social landlords, unlike England where the profit-taking private sector was much more closely involved in acquiring ex-council properties.

Ah, but look at the league tables, True Wales’s Paul Matthews responded – Gross Added Value declining relative to the rest of the UK, a slip down the rankings in the PISA key school subject performance tables, and declining competitiveness in Professor Robert Huggins of Uwic’s global index.

The debate followed similar lines, as it has no doubt in other similar meetings – the disappointed, some of whom were Yes voters in 1997 and the hopeful viewing the Welsh condition through entirely different prisms. On the one hand the committed, the insiders with knowledge of the system and its difficulties and limitations who see law-making powers as a tidying up exercise that will improve the efficiency of a flawed settlement but still not to be expected to deliver Eldorado or Nirvana. On the other the men and one or two women of action sometimes running their own businesses who expected transformation and do not want to see the b——s get more power until they have proved themselves more competent.

For Mark Drakeford it all came down in the end to the view each individual took of Wales’s position in the world. The Noes were repeating many of the dire predictions that had been made before the 1997 referendum that had subsequently proved unfounded. If you were a pessimistic person, full of self-doubt, and your view of the future was a fearful one, the arguments put forward by the No campaign would resonate. The Yes advocates were sending out a different message, saying we are confident, we are willing to take on our responsibilities, we will take action in areas that matter day in and day out to the people of Wales.

Paul Matthews, a former senior manager with Panasonic who now runs his own business, could not agree, and described himself as one of those dissatisfied with what had happened in Wales since the Assembly was created.  The vote was not just about a technical issue – a mere tidying up – as the Yes camp suggested, and proper scrutiny by Westminster would be lost.  The agreement of all the parties in the Assembly on the issue meant there had not been a proper debate and if there were now a Yes vote it would be seen as an endorsement of the Assembly and of its legitimacy and would just encourage them. Instead, we should be concentrating on the task of creating the right foundations for a high tech, high wage economy.

Misgivings were evident in most of the questions and comments from the floor but in the end the audience voted surprisingly decisively – 30 were going to vote in favour, nine were undecided and only three were going to vote No. Those present were of course self-selected and the extent to which they reflected the views of the electorate as a whole will only become apparent next Friday.

Perhaps the last word should go to one of the speakers from the floor. Nothing, he told the meeting had happened in Fochriw since 1973. Whether they would agree in Pontlottyn, where they probably think everything goes to Fochriw, is another matter. But whether it should be the basis for deciding whether the Legislative Competence Order process is too cumbersome and should be replaced by a different system giving full law-making powers in the devolved areas only to Cardiff is another matter. Sadly, the real issues in this plebiscite will almost certainly be buried in the voters’ minds in recriminations about our current economic and social problems.

Rhys David is a trustee of the IWA and writes on business and financial issues.