Geraint Talfan Davies makes a plea for us to separate the policy debate from the question of the powers of the National Assembly
Coverage of this week’s launch of the Yes campaign for the 3 March referendum on law-making powers for the National Assembly, illustrates perfectly what clumsy instruments referendums can be. Ostensibly, this is a referendum on the very arcane matter of whether to implement Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 – that is, to allow the National Assembly to pass laws on matters devolved to it, without a need to seek Westminster’s permission on every single occasion.
But speeches and articles by both sides suggest that people want it to be about one of at least four things: the powers of the Assembly, the performance of the Welsh Government, Welsh influence in the UK, and a test of national identity.
Professor Brian Morgan, in particular, in the Western Mail, despite being in favour of giving law-making powers to the Assembly launched an all-out attack on the performance of the Welsh Government. He urged that the policy debate should be at the centre of the referendum debate. He took issue with many of the Welsh Government’s policies, as many of us might, but the problem with Professor Morgan’s stance is that referendums do not allow you to say “Yes, but…”. You have to say yes or no.
Why, in political debate in Wales, do we always confuse the performance of the Welsh Government with the powers of the institution, the National Assembly? Over my lifetime I can think of dozens of Westminster Government policies with which I disagreed:
- In the sixties the failure of the government to reform industrial relations.
- In the seventies the dog’s dinner that was made of devolution legislation the first time round;
- In the eighties the closure of the coal industry, the approach to Europe and the poll tax.
- In the 1990s the mess of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and the building of the Millennium Dome.
- And in this last decade the failure to concentrate on Afghanistan rather than Iraq, the erosion of civil liberties, some daft ideas to spread casinos around the country, and even some dodgy decisions by the new UK coalition, such as to abolish the Food Standards Agency.
I could also take issue, just as vehemently as Professor Morgan might, with the priority given by successive Governments to the finance industry to the point where it has screwed up all our futures for 20 years.
But I do not conclude from this catalogue of woe that Parliament should be constrained in its powers. On the contrary, what I would seek is greater clarity of responsibility, and in the case of devolution no confusion between different tiers. This would be a clarity that
- Enhances accountability.
- Does not consume time and attention in duplication of processes in Cardiff and London.
- Simplifies and increases public understanding.
That is the main reason I will be voting yes.
But there are other reasons, too. Brian Morgan’s complaints about particular policies do not tell the full story about the policy record – although I am not going to get into the business of trading policy pluses and minuses now, since that is a debate to be had between 3 March and the Assembly elections on 5 May. Neither do they tell the whole story about devolution.
For the impact of the National Assembly is not to be measured solely by the workings of government, but also by the state of civil society. And civil society in Wales has been transformed in the last decade. Interest groups everywhere, particularly in the private and voluntary sectors, are more articulate, more savvy, more engaged with government about the needs of Wales and how they might be addressed. The world of business is much more attentive to policy than a decade ago.
There is a greater sense of ownership of our own problems, a sense of responsibility for finding solutions rather than a freedom to whinge, even responsibility for our mistakes.
Today’s Wales is not the Wales of 1979 or even 1997. It is now a bolder, less deferential place. That is why more and more are asking, as the Barry head-teacher did at the Yes launch – “Not why would I vote yes, but why wouldn’t I?” It is why more and more are asking why, in the ordering of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it should be thought that Welsh people are less deserving of responsibility than the Scots or the Northern Irish.
Are we a lesser people than our Celtic cousins? Are we really less capable of ordering our society than Northern Ireland, a province half the size of Wales whose history of sectarian government begat forty years of civil strife, and where a sizeable part of the population actually want to live in a different state.
It is the Irish who have a word that captures the spirit of those who are now opposing a simple and rational extension of the National Assembly’s legislative powers – the ‘begrudgers’.
The begrudgers’ wish to “always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse” is the surest way of preventing us from growing up and of reducing whatever small influence we have in these islands. Like many of my contemporaries I can recall vividly the way in which the 1979 ‘No’ vote in the first devolution referendum destroyed Welsh influence for two decades. In the game of political poker we revealed that we had no cards, and pushed our chips back towards the Whitehall dealer. I doubt that Wales will want to do that again.
We would all like to see Wales increase its effectiveness at home and its influence and leverage within the UK. Influence depends on respect, respect responds to self-respect, self-respect requires you to take responsibility. I shall be voting for responsibility on 3 March, and debate policy only when the deed is done.