A penchant for bad news

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Poor Man’s Parliament – Ten Years of the Welsh Assembly
Martin Shipton
Seren, £14.99
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Martin Shipton has been an indispensable participant in the melodrama he relates in his history of devolution’s first decade. As the Western Mail’s chief reporter his role has been to explain and interpret what’s happening in our fledgling democracy. For him its been a rollercoaster ride, from one calamity to another. Nonetheless, he has never wavered in wanting to see the infant institution gain a more mature stature. Despite the uphill struggles and sickening plunges of the Welsh devolution story, he has sustained a decidedly fixed point of view, revealing his hand very early on in this narrative.

At the time of the opening of the National Assembly in May 1999 Shipton was several thousand miles away, a guest of the Canadian Government on a week-long study of its federal arrangements which included visiting Nunavut, the newly created northern territory in the high Arctic. Despite its scale – Nunavut has an area 102 times the size of Wales but a population of only 25,0000 – it can makes laws about virtually anything it likes apart from defence. The contrast was not lost on our intrepid reporter. As he listened in on a meeting of the territory’s 19-member Parliament, hearing emotional speeches in one of the three versions of the Inuit language Inukitut, he could not help but reflect on the lack of legislative powers in Cardiff Bay and, moreover:

“…the patronising impertinence of those Labour MPs who advised AMs that they needed to be able to walk before they could run. Whatever the deficiencies of some of the AMs, I firmly believed that the failure to give the Assembly the right to its own laws, unlike its counterpart bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland, was a snub to Wales as a nation.”

A problem with his book, however, is that the way it is organised it is calculated to assist in making the opposite case to the one the author espouses. Each of the chapters, relating chronologically to the years between 1999 and 2009, are largely built around cuttings from Shipton’s manifold contributions to the Western Mail in that period. Yet, being a newspaper the stories that get the headlines are those which underscore catastrophe, humiliation, shortcomings, gerrymandering, skullduggery, backstabbing, corruption and much, much more along these lines – in short, the stock in trade of journalism’s penchant for bad news.

Poor Man’s Parliament is full to the hilt with all of them. A page does not go by when some disaster or other befalls our benighted politicians. Turn to page 224, dealing with the year 2008, and you’ll read: “As summer approached, two AMs made fools of themselves …”

Shipton is not afraid to name names. The AMs on this occasion were the Conservative’s Alun Cairns who, appearing on Radio Cymru, referred to Italians as “greasy wops”; and Plaid’s Culture Minister Rhodri Glyn Thomas who was spotted walking into a pub in Cardiff smoking a cigar, a few days after he handed out the Wales Book of the Year award to the wrong author, an episode recorded on YouTube and transmitted around the globe.

By comparison with many of the troubles reported in Poor Man’s Parliament, these were hardly heinous sins. Overall, however, the main impact is in the cumulative effect of the melodramas Shipton describes. The impression given is of a Fawlty Towers rather than a poor man’s Parliament.

When it was established our National Assembly was hardly blessed. It inherited a country just emerging from third-world dependency on heavy industry. It had a work-force ill equipped for the 21st Century knowledge economy, and a people who were sicker and less educated than almost anywhere else in western Europe. All this was confirmed by West Wales and the Valleys qualifying for Objective 1 European status.

To cope with these problems the Assembly was dealt the worst funding deal of all the devolved countries The Treasury refused to match fund the European money. By 2008 the Labour-leaning IPPR think-tank had published a report that calculated Wales was losing out by £2 billion a year.

To cap it all Wales was given a pig in a poke institution at the beginning, in which a Cabinet system was grafted on to a local authority structure. Consequently, a lot of time during the first decade of devolution was lost straining to put the proper architecture in place, culminating in the referendum that took place on 3 March 2011 that resulted in the Assembly gaining peimary law-making powers.

Of course, some wounds have been self-inflicted. There was Ron Davies’ walk on Clapham Common, Labour’s imposition of Alun Michael, Rod Richards assault charge, Mike German’s expenses problem, and Plaid’s knifing Dafydd Wigley in the back. Perhaps the biggest cock-up was Jane Hutt’s so-called health reform in 2003, in which 22 new local health boards were created. Famously, in a speech in the House of Commons at the time, Llanelli MP Denzil Davies calculated that this meant 52 different bodies were involved in running the Welsh NHS, and that at a time of alarmingly high waiting lists.

From the perspective of the forthcoming referendum on more powers in three weeks time, the most important episode recorded in these pages was Labour’s response to the Richard Commission report in March 2003. It’ll be recalled that the cross-party Commission, set up in the Assembly’s first term by the Labour Liberal Democrat coalition and chaired by the Labour peer Lord Ivor Richard, came up with a remarkably lucid and common sense solution to the constitutional mess. It said the Assembly should become a proper Parliament, and have another 20 members to cope with the increased work load, taking them to 80. Moreover, they should be elected by the STV system of proportional representation.

When it came in out March 2004 the report was widely welcomed, not least by First Minister Rhodri Morgan. He applauded its findings saying how remarkable it was that they were virtually unanimous, barring a jarring caveat made by the Commission’s Labour member, former Merthyr MP Ted Rowlands. As Morgan put it:

“Today I am very proud of my country and we all have good reason to be proud at what this signifies as a sign of growing maturity in the political process.”

But faced with a backlash from Labour MPs at Westminster, within weeks the First Minister was rowing back from this robust endorsement. Instead, a freshly fudged compromise was reached between Labour’s pro and anti-devolution wings, endorsed by a special conference in Cardiff in September 2004, and later enshrined in the 2006 Wales Act. The referendum in three weeks time will be about getting rid of the fudge and giving the Assembly straightforward legislative powers in the areas of its competence, without having to go cap in hand to Westminster each time it wants to make a change.

So what led to the fudged compromise in September 2004? It was Labour MPs’ compete hostility to the Richard Commission package which, they believed, would lead directly to a reduction in their number. This was stated in terms at the time by the then Secretary of State for Wales, Neath MP Peter Hain. In candid remarks to Martin Shipton ahead of the publication of the Richard Commission’s report, and quoted in Poor Man’s Parliament, he declared:

“My bottom line for change is that I am not willing to countenance anything that alters the number of MPs. It has to remain at 40 and I am not touching with a barge-pole the Scottish nightmare of reductions in numbers of MPs.”

The irony, of course, is that is precisely what is now happening as a result of the Conservative Liberal Democrat Act to redraw constituency boundaries currently that passed through Westminster earlier this year. Its effect will be to cut Welsh representation in the House of Commons from 40 to 30 by the time of the next election in 2015. And that, combined with being out of power, is the reason most Welsh Labour MPs rooted for a Yes vote in the March referendum to turn the Assembly into a legislative Parliament.

Despite its absorption with the myriad misdemeanours and failures that have taken place in Cardiff Bay over the past ten years, Martin Shipton’s book is valuable in providing us with this perspective. His concluding sentence is a comment on the present First Minister Carwyn Jones’ view, expressed to him at the end of 2010, that a Yes vote was essential, not only to provide the Assembly with the “the tools for the job” but because the lack of lawmaking powers had led Westminster to take Wales less seriously than Scotland or Northern Ireland:

“After more than a decade of Welsh Labour politicians pretending their were on equal terms with Whitehall, it was good to hear the First Minister assert that this was not the case and that he was prepared to do battle to ensure the Assembly would be a Poor Man’s Parliament no longer.”

Taken as a whole Shipton’s book brings into sharp focus how remarkable the emphatic the two-to-one Yes vote in the referendum was in March 2011. For despite all the Assembly’s inadequacies and shortcomings, and despite the antics of many of its members, the electorate stated clearly and forcefully that they wanted a proper and not a ‘poor man’s Parliament’. In doing so they gave the devolution process a shove that will surely lead on to better days and greater authority for an institution that has had such a shaky start.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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