Geraint Talfan Davies argues that making our voice heard will involve working better across our democratic institutions
In 1999, just as we were creating our National Assembly, the UK Parliament decided to set aside a meeting room just off Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament, to act as a parallel chamber in which MPs could debate issues in a less adversarial atmosphere than the House of Commons. No votes are taken. It’s an off-line part of Parliament.
In the face of our demonstrable lack of clout at Westminster – National Assembly notwithstanding – is it not time that Wales created an off-line chamber where Assembly Members, MPs, MEPs, Councillors, and even representatives of other parts of Welsh civil society could, from time to time, come together to debate and build the leverage that Wales so patently lacks?
Recent weeks have not been good for Wales. The country encompasses one of the most concentrated areas of multiple deprivation in Europe, yet it will feel the full force of the cuts to non-devolved social expenditures, even if the cut to the Welsh Government’s devolved budget is slightly less than anticipated. A number of major projects that had been keeping alive some hope for economic renewal, have been cast aside, while our only autonomous broadcasting organisation, has been neutered in the dark.
As if to add insult to injury the operation of the Barnett formula that decides the Welsh Government budget has once again delivered a more generous outcome for Scotland and Northern Ireland than for Wales, despite every academic study concluding, and even the Prime Minister himself concurring, that it is intrinsically unfair to Wales.
The key lesson to be drawn from this bran tub of bad news for Wales must focus on our lack of political leverage in London – in sharp contrast to the Scots and the Northern Irish. In the case of S4C is was certainly woefully inadequate (here). In the field of broadcasting, despite occasional promptings from Assembly Committees, successive Welsh Government Ministers have not managed to create any pressure or leverage on Ministers in London, on the BBC Trust or on other broadcasting regulators. Wales has usually intervened too late, too disjointedly and too politely. We need to get up earlier, be better armed, and more ready play it rough.
But this goes beyond broadcasting policy. The lack of influence or leverage is the feature common to the scrapping of the Severn Barrage and the St. Athan defence training project, the proposed closure of the Newport passport office, the continued uncertainty over the electrification of the London-south Wales railway line and, worst of all, the failure to address the Barnett formula despite overwhelming evidence about its unfairness to Wales. The recent suddenly discovered exclusion of the devolved administrations from the £60m being set aside for port developments related to the wind energy industry is yet another case in point.
Is it a question of an uncaring English separatism, cruel realpolitik, or of political personalities? Personalities have something to do with it. Adam Price’s view (here) that our elected representatives are drawn from too narrow a gene pool is widely shared by the public and by a substantial part of the policy community. And he is factually correct (here). It was depressing that he was howled down by unthinking party machines.
At a time when not a single Welsh MP can manage to get elected to Labour’s National Executive, isn’t it chastening to think that more than 20 Welshmen and women were to be found in the Wilson Governments of the sixties – and big figures at that: James Callaghan, Roy Jenkins, James Griffiths, Cledwyn Hughes, John Morris, George Thomas; lesser but still substantial figures such as Eirene White, Goronwy Roberts, and Elystan Morgan; and in seats outside Wales, Merlyn Rees and Ivor Richard.
Personalities apart, our lack of clout might also arise from repeated failures to concert Welsh pressure, not always because of party differences, but because our elected representatives and leaders too often will not separate substantive policy issues from the continuing debate about the direction of devolution. This is now exacerbated by having different parties in power at either end of the M4. Party, faction or tribe almost always trump nation.
John Osmond recently pointed (here) to cross-party collaboration between the Welsh members of the European Parliament. That is very welcome, but they are a small quartet in a Parliament that is less essentially less tribal than our own. What of collaboration closer to home? Had it not been for the actions of Ann Clwyd MP the other week, one would have been tempted to ask what had happened to the old notion of a cross-party Welsh Parliamentary group. Ann Clwyd revived the notion to get around the veto of the Secretary of State for Wales on the holding of a Welsh Grand Committee session to discuss proposed cuts in the number of Welsh MPs. An important issue, without doubt, but the Welsh Parliamentary Group could attend to a lot more issues than simply those that affect their own jobs.
But the other dimension that needs addressing is the cross-institutional. And that is where a neutral parallel chamber – Cardiff’s City Hall and the Assembly’s Pierhead Building spring to mind – could play its part in generating a concerted pressure from all quarters, and sparking effective, multi-layered, cross-party political campaigns on specific issues in the Welsh interest. I can imagine that some will see this as detracting from the authority of our National Assembly, but it could be that these cross-institutional debates could be called, either through the Assembly’s petitioning system or by agreement between the Assembly’s Presiding Officer and the Chair of the Welsh Parliamentary Group.
If Wales does not succeed in manufacturing more concerted leverage, then even governments pledged to fairness will not be deterred from giving us a good kicking even when we are demonstrably already down.