What’s in a name … quite a lot actually

When referring to the Welsh Government we should beware of confusion and acronyms

Writing in yesterday’s Western Mail about the split between the Welsh ‘Assembly’ Government and the National Assembly, and the latter’s emergence as legislative body, Presiding Officer Dafydd Elis-Thomas, remarked:

“It would be a huge benefit however if the Government dropped the confusing and misleading ‘Assembly’ from its own title. No-one would have called the UK Government the UK Parliamentary Government.”

Hear hear to that I say, and if the Presiding Officer’s gaze alights upon these words I can offer him the small comfort that on this site, and in all IWA publications, the term ‘Welsh Assembly Government’ is banned. Instead, we simply say Welsh Government.

Dafydd Elis-Thomas is right. Mixing up the term Assembly with the Welsh Government only adds to confusion in many people’s minds between the two. Attention to this was drawn by Sir Emyr Jones-Parry’s All-Wales Convention report last Autumn. It found, for example, that many people struggled to understand the difference between the Assembly and the Welsh Government:

“A deficit of effective communications across Wales exacerbated the difficulty in understanding the process of devolution. A bigger impediment was the very complexity of that process. This was underlined by the results of our Social Research. The distinction between the roles of the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government was frequently misunderstood, partly because of the use of the adjective ‘Assembly’ before Government.”

This argument goes back to the very day Rhodri Morgan announced that he was going to call his administration the ‘Welsh Assembly Government’, in November 2001: As he told a plenary session of the National Assembly:

“We are trying to adopt a title that will be completely clear to the people of Wales – that is all – something simple that matches their way of speaking. That is why we have decided to use the title ‘Welsh Assembly Government’. It is much simpler and shorter and is completely obvious and clear to the people of Wales.”

He was immediately cross-questioned by Ron Davies, then Labour’s Caerphilly AM and, of course, architect of the 1998 Wales Act which, he pointed out, had enshrined the term ‘National Assembly for Wales’:

“Do you agree that it is important now to create a greater sense of clarity between the National Assembly, which is the legislative body in Wales, and its Executive, which you head, as the Government? The term that was given to the press and that your Government will now use, ‘the Welsh Assembly Government’, makes about as much sense as the term ‘the British Parliament’s Cabinet’. It is a constitutional nonsense and will confuse people even more.”

To which Rhodri Morgan responded:

“As a backbencher I understood and went along with the title ‘the National Assembly for Wales’, although even then ‘the Welsh Assembly’ was more commonly used in political parlance … We now have two and a half years of experience of the Assembly in operation. People outside and inside Wales refer to us corporately as ‘the Welsh Assembly’. If you say that there is no meaning to the title ‘Welsh Assembly Government’, you must offer an alternative. We do not want to call ourselves ‘the Government of Wales’, because Central Government spends half of the public money that is spent in Wales and we spend the other half.”

Conservative Leader, Nick Bourne immediately added his criticism:

“When the term ‘Welsh Assembly Government’ was presented to the Assembly Review of Procedure Committee, it immediately received a universal bird, apart from the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, who sided with the Administration. Rhodri Morgan mentioned that the title ‘National Assembly for Wales’ was not regularly used. I agree with that. However, it is used more than the term ‘Welsh Assembly Government’.”

Earlier Cynog Dafis, then Plaid Cymru AM for Mid and West Wales, articulated a deep unhappiness amongst his party at the projected change, asking the First Minister,

“ … are we to assume that you are concerned about the use of the word ‘national’ because that word carries connotations regarding powers, self-confidence and how we decide where policy should be created? From now on will the tendency be to use the word ‘national’ to refer to the England and Wales level? I have noticed that some Ministers’ statements mention national policies when referring to England and Wales policies, and not even to British policies.”

A few day’s later the Presiding Officer’s views were conveyed in a remarkably frank interview he gave to BBC Wales’ Dragon’s Eye programme. He stated that while the Administration was free to call itself what it liked, the National Assembly for Wales would remain just that so far as its operation as a collective body within plenary sessions, committees and elsewhere were concerned. He added that this was its legal title on the face of the Wales Act and that it had been chosen for good reasons after careful consideration. He continued that the term ‘Welsh’ in relation to the Assembly had restricted, exclusive connotations of an ethnic and linguistic character. In contrast, he said, the title ‘National Assembly for Wales’ conveyed an inclusive message, embracing and representing all the people of Wales, regardless of their language background, whether they had been born in Wales, or had moved to Wales from elsewhere.

The Dragon’s Eye programme also revealed the contents of an internal Cabinet Office memorandum dated 27 November – the day the Assembly debated the issue – sent to all Assembly staff by the Head of the Cabinet Executive, Bryan Mitchell. This provided the following guidance:

“The terms ‘administration’ and ‘executive’ should no longer be used. The term ‘Cabinet’ may still be relevant in some contexts (usually when referring to Ministers collectively) though, whenever possible, Welsh Assembly Government is preferable. The term ‘Assembly Government’ may also be used where the context is clear, for example by the use of the full title earlier in the same document or statement. The acronym WAG should not be used …”

Of course, since then ‘WAG’ as a short hand term for the administration has gained considerable currency, both inside and outside the Government. You can guage the extent of its usage by simply Googling it.

This does Wales no favours. The Oxford English dictionary defines ‘wag’ as a “facetious person, one given to jesting or practical jokes”. Recently the acronym has come to be used by the London tabloids as short for ‘wives and girlfriends’ of high profile soccer payers in the English national team. Bryan Mitchell was right to be wary of its use. Its time we got rid of it.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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