Time for a new generation to take over the reins

John Osmond reflects on 17 years at the helm of the IWA

When I became Director of the IWA in 1996 I never imagined I would still be here nearly 17 years later. I thought about five years would do it – enough to make a mark and then move on to pastures new before I had run out of ideas. After all, the IWA is a think tank and has to keep up. Can you think up an original new thought every day?

So why am I still here? It’s a good question, though one that won’t have to be asked for very long since within a few months, once we’ve found someone who can carry on the thinking role, I shall be finally moving on.

But what’s kept me here for much longer than I’ve been in any other job in a career that has now spanned some 45 years? The answer is that referendum we had in 1997. The result, albeit by the narrowest of melodramatic margins, opened up a unique prospect for forging a new Wales, for creating a truly democratic political nation. It was not just a chance of a lifetime but a real moment in history.

In the wake of the referendum, in October 1998, a few months ahead of the first election to the National Assembly, I published a pamphlet with Charter 88, a group then campaigning for constitutional change throughout Britain, New Politics in Wales. In it I argued that during the previous 20 years Wales had changed unalterably. “The end of Empire, the decline of the nationalised industries, and 18 years of Conservative government have played a part in redefining what it means to be Welsh today,” I wrote, and predicted that Labour’s overweening dominance of Welsh politics was coming to an end with an era of coalitions beckoning.

I also said that policymaking communities would develop in every area in which the Assembly had responsibility, claiming that this interactive network would be a building block for a new dynamic civil society. I said the challenge was to transform civil society in Wales into Welsh civil society:

“The new Welsh politics is about creating this democracy and a new civil society to make the democracy work. When it first meets, the National Assembly will not be representative of that civil society. But it will be the essential instrument to ensure that in the coming decades, a Welsh democracy and a Welsh civil society will come into being.”

I wanted to be part of that process which is why I have stayed with the IWA so long. Ours has been a central role in the building of the Welsh civil society I was talking about. How successful have we been? Well, along with a wide range of other organisations that have sprung up around the Assembly, to lobby and debate policy, the IWA has grown substantially. We now have 1,200 individual members, 125 Fellows and 130 organisations in the private, public and voluntary sectors supporting us. We have a branch network throughout Wales, organise regular events and conferences throughout the country, and publish a good deal, including this daily website and our journal the welsh agenda.

If the IWA wasn’t here it seems to me that something like it would have to be invented. In the Assembly’s early years the new institution became a surrogate for a constitutional convention and, indeed, in the process created two groups to pursue that role more formally – the Richard Commission in 2004 and later the All-Wales Convention itself. In all of this the IWA has been highly active, following events, explaining them, and making its own recommendations.

A key moment, of course, was the second referendum we had in 2011 that transformed the Assembly into a proper legislature, with primary law-making powers. An essential part of that achievement was a cross-party consensus in favour of the change, including remarkably the Welsh Conservatives. Throughout these years the IWA has made a point of being a place and providing a platform where all the parties can meet on an equal footing.

This, I think, is something that marks out a difference between Welsh and Scottish politics. Inevitably, we have our share of sectarian instincts, but little of the hatred that characterises some of what passes for political debate in Scotland. Is this merely a reflection of the fact that Wales presents less of a threat to the continuance of the British state? Or does it say something about a social democratic instinct and centre of gravity that most of our politicians have in common? I like to think it’s more of the latter than the former.

In any event, whoever takes over the helm at the IWA will have a very different platform and vantage point to survey the Welsh scene than the one that confronted me in early 1996. There will still be formidable challenges, and among them, in my judgement, the following should be priorities:

  • Tackling our economic problems around communications and connectivity, including improving our internal road network, making best use of rail electrification with speedy progress on the Valleys Metro, developing our ports, and thinking outside the box on enhancing our air links.
  • Finding innovative ways of combining economic with sustainable development, especially in energy generation, to ensure that Wales can really become a world leader in tackling climate change.
  • Sustaining our communitarian approach to health and social care at a time when England appears to be going in the opposite direction.
  • Developing the comparative advantage that Welsh medium education gives us by extending it, over time, to all of our schools. We need to promote Welsh not just for the sake of the language, but for the sake of our children.
  • Making more imaginative use of the Internet in communicating with our people and promoting debate on Welsh issues.
  • Discovering the value we can gain from exploiting Wales’ European vocation – and it has been good to see that our First Minister Carwyn Jones has been emphasising this in recent weeks.

Yet in facing these and other vital policy questions there is one major difference that marks Wales out in 2013 compared with 1996. A friend once made the analogy that it was like playing a game of tennis. You can’t join in until you have a bat and ball. In 2013 we may still not have reached our full potential, but at least we can join in the game.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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