The buildings of our nation

Dafydd Elis-Thomas says the National Assembly’s estate symbolises the emergence of civic Wales

If you have visited us in Cardiff Bay, you will know that we have three historic buildings. The first is Tŷ Hywel, formerly known as Crickhowell House, our first home as a weak elected democracy, which was re-christened for 2007 to declare confidence in our new constitutional status, as a legislature. Hywel Dda, the historic legislator linked to the medieval law books, or with which he is affiliated, was the first ‘Devolutionist’ in terms of establishing a constant relationship through the evidence in the documents of the Wessex court in the first half of the tenth century with the English crown, in the beautiful old capital of Winchester.

When Cardiff was made a city at the beginning of the last century, it had two powerful centres. One was civic, and prospectively democratic, and located in City Hall, Cathays Park. The other was the truly earth-shatteringly successful capitalistic centre, located at the Coal Exchange and the Pierhead. Oddly, in the legend of ‘devolution’, the Coal Exchange would have been the Assembly’s home if the 1979 referendum had been successful, and many had supplicated that City Hall would be its home following the marginally successful 1997 referendum. In 1998, the Pierhead came into the possession of the prospective Assembly and after years of being an interpretive centre for the hole in the ground that was not built upon, this year, it became a destination in itself, which welcomed over 40,000 people through its doors in the first four months.

Tŷ Hywel, on the Pierhead Street crossroad, is the offices of the Assembly Members, their support staff, and the officers employed by the Assembly Commission to provide democratic, representative services. On the top floor is where the Welsh Ministers work when the Assembly is in session. In that red-brick building, therefore, the two constitutional elements of Wales meet daily on the stairs and in the lift. This is democracy, as an executive, with scrutiny being constantly implemented.

The Pierhead, a building made with the unique red bricks and tiles of Rhiwabon, is where the people of Cardiff, the Valleys and Wales meet with the Assembly. This has been the visual symbol of devolution on every news bulletin on many channels over 10 years and more—the alternative Big Ben.

It now houses a space for democracy, to celebrate and enjoy, but also to commemorate our history. It houses the memorial book for the children of Aberfan, which is constantly open to the public, following the promise that I made to Bethania Chapel’s devoted congregation in its decommissioning service. There, in the Large Hall, between its late-gothic columns, are projected pictures of the history of Cardiff port, which was the world’s centre for steam coal, which was carried on the railways and the trading ships.

In our care is the coat of arms of the Docks and Railway Company Wrth Ddŵr a Thân (Through Water and Fire). In our care also is the memorial stone that lists the names of the company’s staff who went into military service and those who lost their lives. More recently, on our site, we have the memorial for all the seamen of the Merchant Navy who left Cardiff docks and Wales and did not return. I feel honoured to take part in regular commemorative services by this memorial. On the second floor, a space has been created for the past and the future. In the old offices of the dock managers, there is a series of national signs in facsimile, from the manuscripts of the Peniarth laws, past the Pennal letter of Owain Glyndŵr to the Bible of the Bishop William Morgan, the Chartists’ petition, the foundations of the National Health Service, to the first legislative order of the merged Assembly, with its limited powers, made in 2000.

In the main room where the docks were managed, there is a virtual memorial of significant historical figures, whom you can meet digitally around the table of glorious slate. In the room across the stairs, a completely new space was created, namely the futures gallery, where contemporary visual material can be exhibited, and where visitors can type their messages about their desires for the future. From the window of the futures gallery, you can see the best view of the third building of our constitution’s estate, the Senedd.

Between the office block of Tŷ Hywel, built at the end of the 20th Century, and the Grade 1 Listed building of the Pierhead, built at the beginning of the nineteenth century, stands the Senedd, built in the twenty-first century by Richard Rogers and Ivan Harbour, the true architects of devolution! But in the specification for the proposed building, which was prepared by political adviser Huw Roberts, on behalf of the political architect of the whole project, Ron Davies, the then Secretary of State, the constitutional needs were stated clearly.

The brief was for transparency and accessibility to be visualised in his design of contemporary democracy, and when the architects first stood on the chosen site on the shores of Cardiff’s new Bay and looked towards the Church of St Augustine on the tip of Penarth, the sight became an essential part of the design. Bringing the outside in and taking the inside out was the intention, by incorporating the aims of democratic transparency and accessibility in the design itself. Equally fundamental to the brief was environmental sustainability when building and maintaining the building, with green procurement being an alternative aim. That is what happened.

However, the lack of understanding that rose against the whole project, and which led to breaking off contact with the architect, was not foreseen. Thanks to the persistency of the Society of Architects in Wales, and the majority of the Assembly Members from three parties, who continued to vote in favour of Rogers’s vision by three votes, and the unyielding characteristic determination of the then Finance Minister, the building was built on time and within the projected cost. What was not foreseen was the way in which the building would become a centre for democratic pilgrims from around the country and the rest of the world, and a location for dance and song and for rewarding excellence, as much as a place for debate and legislation.

A common experience for the accidental visitor, or those who intended to visit the building, is to stand in the part of the building called the Oriel on the third floor of the public space under the large cedar wood funnel and to stare down through the glass floor on the elected representatives who are literally working below them. This is a truly democratic experience for voters and the elected alike, and is only to be seen elsewhere in Canberra, as far as I know, in the Parliament of Australia, where the public can walk over their Members on a dome of grass, but without seeing them, which differs from Cardiff Bay.

In the autumn of this year, to note the building and regeneration work on our estate, the Assembly Commission, in co-operation with the publisher of fine books, Graffeg, will publish a bilingual long essay about our estate by Trevor Fishlock, with memorable photographs, and an interview with the architects, under the simple title ‘Senedd’.

The Parliament of any national assembly throughout the democratic world is the location of three basic constitutional events, namely making legislation for the government for which it is an elected body, calling the country’s Government Ministers to account, regarding finance in particular, and being the voice of the representative majority for the people of this country throughout the period for which the Members are elected. Since 2007, when the second contemporary democratic constitution for Wales was implemented in the Government of Wales Act 2006 at the moment the First Minister was elected, those three functions were achieved in Wales on behalf of the people of the country through our democratic government.

As we are the citizens of a democratic government within the Royal parliamentary constitutional framework of the UK, 15 acts and legislative competence orders were made under the Welsh Royal Emblem, which was approved by Her Majesty the Queen in time for that occasion in May 2008. I do not have to explain the significance of that. On it and in it is the emblem of the remainder of the sovereignty of the Welsh Principality, arising as if from under ‘the magnificent crown of London’ of the Mabinogi through a wreath and including an excerpt of the national anthem, with the national vegetables and flowers of the nation decorated around it. This was the best work of the College of Arms, of course, with the signature of Elizabeth I under the word ‘Approved’ on an image. It would be completely understandable to her last Tudor namesake who signed the Act authorising the translation of the Bible in 1563. This was a much more important constitutional deed in terms of Wales’s culture than the Welsh Acts between 1536 and 1543, which were wrongly named for so long as the ‘acts of union’ by historians who did not understand the constitution of their country.

There is one other step that was legislated upon by the UK Government in the constitutional act of 2007 yet to be enacted, namely the transition from part 3 to part 4 of the Act. That will only come to force by means of the gap of conviction of another referendum.

On 9 February this year, the Assembly Members voted unanimously for a referendum to be held. One of my responsibilities and that of my colleagues on the Assembly Commission, the statutory body responsible for administrating the needs of the Members and the public and providing democratic services, is to ensure that a stream of unbiased, objective information is available to the public before then. I try to answer any relevant questions honestly and as much without bias as I can within two minutes. This will be an extension of our day-to-day work, as communicating the nature of our democratic process, in our opinion, is an essential part of the process. As noted in the truism regarding justice, democracy must be seen to be administered.

It should come as no surprise that some of us who have responsibility for publicising the nature of Welsh democracy and who welcome millions of people to their democratic houses, by organising events to encourage the sharing of opinions and debate this week, as in the recent Royal Welsh Show, are keen to hold such a referendum on a day that is convenient to voters, rather than at the presumed convenience of politicians. This is according to the agreement on which the coalition government in Cardiff Bay is based, ‘to proceed to a successful outcome of a referendum for full law-making powers under Part IV as soon as practicable, at or before the end of the Assembly term’.

We commission all kinds of thorough social research annually to gauge Welsh public attitudes towards devolution; this is a firm basis for the Assembly Commission’s communications strategy.

We have a very clear understanding of people’s attitudes towards referenda and elections, in particular the factors that affect people’s desire and willingness to vote. In terms of our desire to spread the word, we have shared this information with the Welsh Government, the Secretary of State for Wales in the UK Government and the Electoral Commission, the statutory regulator on these matters.

According to our research, 51 per cent of Welsh voters say that they will definitely come out to vote. The social profile of those who are the most likely to vote is men who live in mid Wales and the West, who are knowledgeable about the Assembly, and who presume that it is more ‘Welsh’ than’ British’ in terms of its propensity. Is this typical? However, these people are not necessarily in favour of increasing the legislative powers of the Assembly. Among those who declared an intention to vote, come what may, there was a majority of ‘yes’ votes of between 47 per cent and 40 per cent in the sample.

As I have emphasised, it is not my job between now and polling day to urge people which way to vote, but rather to urge them to cast their vote. However, we have said kindly to the Welsh Government, on the basis of evidence, that getting a high number of voters to turn out would make it more likely that it will win the referendum. A clear and intelligible question would also be quite helpful, such as that offered for the other referendum in the proposed Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, published recently by the UK Deputy Prime Minister, which caused the hearts of the poor Welsh MPs of all parties to jump like turkeys before Christmas.

Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas is Presiding Officer of the National Assembly. This is an edited extract of a speech he delivered at last week’s Ebbw Vale Eisteddfod.

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