Carolyn Hitt says we should follow Hywel Dda’s lead in tomorrow’s referendum vote
In a serendipitous move, just in time for the referendum, the National Library of Wales has digitised ancient manuscripts of Hywel Dda’s laws –“one of the jewels of Welsh civilisation” – for all to access online. Downloading these ancient illustrated manuscripts reveal what a literate, thoughtful and enlightened lot we were in the Dark Ages. They also provide an interesting parallel as modern Wales decides to vote Yes or No in tomorrow’s vote.
What would Hywel Dda have made of the referendum on law-making powers for the National Assembly? 1,000 years after he was setting out his own vision of native Welsh law, the King of Deheubarth surely would be wondering why we’re still even having the debate.
Hywel, who was apparently hot on progressive forms of government and women’s rights, might have thought we’d have had it all sorted ten centuries after he was embroiled in his own codification of Welsh law. But here we are still tweaking after all these years in the hope of achieving the perfectly reasonable, desirable and blindingly obvious goal of having laws that only apply in Wales made in Wales.
It’s a straightforward principle. In theory, the Assembly already has the power to pass laws in 20 broad policy areas but only if it gets the nod from Whitehall to legislate on the detail. As Carwyn Jones quipped in the language of the Six Nations, “It’s like asking Martin Johnson to pick the Welsh team.”
But it’s not just the fact that we have to pass the ball to Whitehall in the first place – it’s the the inordinate length of time they can take take to pass it back. Examples of slow motion London politics that have affected Wales’ wish to just get on with it include hold ups on plans to introduce fire sprinklers in schools and new homes, a law to tackle the issue of affordable housing and reforms to our out-dated mental health systems.
It took more than two-and-a-half years to transfer powers to the Assembly to make laws to increase recycling in Wales.
We were the first to propose the Smoking Ban but could only put it into practice four years later at the fag end of everyone else’s implementation while we waited for Westminster to pass an enabling act. The current drive by Welsh Assembly members to make it easier for people to donate their organs when they die is perhaps the most time-sensitive issue of all. Countless lives are needlessly lost for lack of organs as attempts to reform the process in Wales are delayed.
A Yes Vote would streamline this slow and complex system of law-making. It would save money too. The Assembly already spends £2 million a year on the current system. And as for the so-called loss of scrutiny argument, devolving law-making powers to Wales would make Assembly Members more accountable not less. At the moment, what better excuse is there for failure to deliver on promises than sorry we’re still in Westminster limbo, can’t do anything about it here.
But for me the no-brainer of voting Yes is we’re only asking for something Scotland and Northern Ireland already have. This is not an earth-shattering demand. I’ve never forgotten what Professor Gwyn Alf Williams said in the 1980s when he was campaigning for a Welsh Assembly: “We as a people have been around for 2000 years. Isn’t it about time we got the key to our own front door.” Well, we’ve got the key now – but it’s time to do some home improvements. And the Assembly deserves the same tools that Scotland and Northern Ireland already have to get the job done.
In fact, even after a Yes vote we’d still have fewer powers than the latter. And let’s not forget the Northern Ireland Assembly serves a province half the size of Wales, and has the backing of Unionist parties who are passionately committed to remaining part of the United Kingdom.
The Northern Irish experience underlines how daft “the slippery slope to independence” argument is from the No camp. Anti-devolutionists have been dredging up the slippery slope for so long that if we really had been hurtling down this Welsh Cresta Run of febrile nationalism since 1979 don’t they think we might have reached the abyss of separatism by now?
The majority of people in the Yes Campaign do not wish to see independence for Wales. It’s a cross-party affair – Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru, Welsh Liberal Democrats and Welsh Conservatives. Nick Bourne & Co would hardly be backing it if they thought a straightforward referendum on how Assembly Members make laws would lead to passport controls on the Severn Bridge.
The other negative argument put forward is that “second rate” Assembly Members don’t deserve more power. This is as ridiculous a premise as maintaining the Westminster Parliament should be stripped of its law-making powers because of duck moat expenses, Iraq and the state of the economy. It’s about improving the institution and its procedures. If you want to improve its personnel there’s another date for that – the May 5 elections.
A No vote to these proposals for modest reforms is presented as a risk-free venture. But there would be consequences of sticking with the status quo. It’s not a question of staying where we are, it’s a simple backwards or forwards decision. Do we want to hang on to a tortuous process that could see the holes in the devolution settlement systematically exploited over time? Or do we move on to a more democratic, efficient and accountable system of law-making that is closer to the people who feel its impact?
A No vote would send a message up the M4 that says we’d rather let Whitehall mandarins do the talking for us. We already know that London officials need little prompting to sideline Welsh affairs. Wales’s former top civil servant, Sir John Shortridge, has described in detail how awareness of the needs of Wales in Whitehall is poor. In the babble of these turbulent economic times, Wales needs a stronger voice than ever.
That’s why I’ll be voting Yes tomorrow. Hywel Dda lit up the end of the first millennium with his progressive approach. At the start of the third millennium, supporting greater law-making powers for the National Assembly for Wales will lift us out of our own Dark Ages.