Should we have a moratorium on devolution in Wales to concentrate on performance?

Anne Wareham says we should put performance ahead of powers.

We are struggling in Wales to keep up standards of education and healthcare, so isn’t it better to focus on getting them right before we go further?

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I’ve seen the relentless circuit that organisations get into between the centralised and the decentralised. No sooner has an organisation settled into one and discovered the downsides than plans are made to reverse the process, inevitably very expensively. This is then followed by the process once again being reversed as the new problems become plain. Both create great problems but generally it is possible at great expense to do the reversal.

Devolution doesn’t have this flexibility, (except in local government) so we’d better try and chew on what we have, doing our best with the problems of this mouthful before biting off any more.

Not long ago ‘postcode lottery’ was the issue in the media. Now, the media has moved on and it suddenly seems we no longer mind looking longingly at the services and benefits our neighbours get for living on the other side of an arbitrary line. Decentralisation has got a grip. Despite Scotland discussing it all to death and voting to stay part of the larger whole, everyone has begun to take for granted that they didn’t mean it and that devolution is the way forward. Well, there are clear advantages to a central government in decentralisation when cuts have to be made – the pain can be pushed down.

Sadly, anyone given a little power finds they would like a whole lot more and can always find excellent reasons why they should have it. So there’s quite an impetus politically behind decentralising more, even if across Wales, we’re being told that services are better in England.

Wales has its own particular problems: a one party state. Where the only choice is between a left wing nationalist party and a left wing nationalist party, we begin to see arrogance and complacency. Where politicians, national or local, see their seats under threat they do genuinely appear more responsive and thoughtful than those full of the confidence of power under their belts.

But this is unlikely to matter much to the general population. It is easy to create fixed and determined loyalties, even by arbitrarily dividing a group of humans into Group A and Group B. Add in a sense of imbalance and bad feeling and Groups A and B will develop an antipathy which will be hard to ever shift. If Group A’s health service is poor it will still be seen by all Group A members to be ‘our health service’ and the problems overlooked until they come to a bed in your house.

With a London focused but pretty universal media, where England and the British Isles are seen and presented as coterminous, real consciousness about these problems is a long way off. People don’t always realise that a goody offered to the English will never arrive in Wales.

We have been wished into enormous difficulties, some of which are only just beginning to show. Time to grapple with these before we create more.

Anne Wareham is a writer who works for the Telegraph, the Spectator and various garden magazines and is author of ‘The Bad Tempered Gardener’.

25 thoughts on “Should we have a moratorium on devolution in Wales to concentrate on performance?

  1. “The one great principle of the
    (English) law is, to make
    business for itself. There is no
    other principle distinctly,
    certainly, and consistently
    maintained through all its
    narrow turnings. Viewed by
    this light it becomes a
    coherent scheme, and not the
    monstrous maze the laity are
    apt to think it. Let them but
    once clearly perceive that its
    grand principle is to make
    business for itself at their
    expense, and surely they will
    cease to grumble.”
    – Charles Dickens , Bleak House

    Ever thus, every state, every administration, every Welsh Assembly.

  2. Absolutely, there should be a moratorium. Since the start of devolution (which, let’s remember, was very tentatively accepted by the Welsh people), the constitution has changed fundamentally 4 times in 16 years: each has been . Devolution itself, the shift from a body corporate, the introduction of legislative powers in principle and the fuller introduction of legislative powers. In the next few years we will have two dispensations of fiscal devolution and a move to a reserved powers model. Treating the last two as the same one, that will mean 6 fundamental changes before the Assembly is 20 years old. The only countries with a comparable pace of constitutional change are those subject to the Arab Spring! All but 2 of those (the initial devolution and the extension of legislative powers) were decided by politicians and not people.

    We cannot concentrate on the game if we keep arguing about the rules. My fear is that we have created an insatiable and natural momentum: we already accept that this rate of change is normal, it is not. Constitutions take hundreds of years to develop: the UK’s is the culmination of a thousand years of evolution and it is still imperfect. It takes decades to measure the success and flaws of a constitution. If we keep changing it, then the habit is to continue to change it and that leads us towards practical independence. In the 2011 referendum, I remember Carwyn Jones saying that there would be no call or expectation for tax powers for a long while after the referendum. Two weeks later he was calling for tax powers.

    The Welsh political class took the uncertain nod of the Welsh people in 1997 and have taken a mile where an inch was granted. The result is that we have a devolutionary system which goes wholly beyond democratic support or understanding of it. Our democracy is not yet equipped to deal with the level of devolution we have: we have neither the civil society or the democratic understanding for it. Look at Assembly elections: they struggle to reach 40% turnout and yet hospitals and schools are defined by those elections. That is not because people are more interested in Defence and Foreign affairs, but because they do not understand the system and they’re not engaged in it.

    Westminster is just as bad, treating us, in the words of Damien McBride as “Scotland’s younger, uglier sister”. This lack of understanding and fear of the Celtic fringes has led to us being treated as “Scotland lite”. The idea being that there is a groundswell of public support for more powers, as in Scotland, so we should be given them in order to shut us up.

    In the face of scandals and failures which would have severely damaged a government had it been in Westminster, we have a Welsh government with a large amount of power and a small amount of scrutiny. On one hand, people never asked for this (the current situation being so poorly understood), so it is only right that we wait for public engagement to catch up with it. On the other hand, until we have a genuinely Welsh focused press and media, any further devolution will mean more power without adequate scrutiny.

    In short, Welsh politicians have not earned the right or the mandate to have any more devolution. Roger Lewis made much of the right “tools to do the job” but a bad workman blames his tools.

  3. The excellence of this article is that it takes a step back and looks at things on the basis of general principles, rather than the usual Welsh partisanship and parochialism. Viewed from that perspective, further devolution is hard to justify under current circumstances in Wales. Indeed, is a moratorium enough? Those who have pushed devolution on us should answer a question: ‘What exactly will it take to convince you that you were wrong?’

  4. Anne seems to take as a given that services currently delivered by Westminster/Whitehall are inherently better/higher quality than they could be delivered by Welsh institutions.

  5. The basic arguments for administrative centralisation and a unitary polity put forward by this article (a claimed virtue in the uniformity of state provision, a claimed feeling of common human solidarity divided by unnatural borders, the removal of claimed ‘provincial’ inefficiencies), contribute very eloquently to the case for a European super-state (or a world super-state for that matter) when taken to their logical conclusion.

    When Ms Wareham, JWR and other commentators in this thread make that logical argument in their writings and nail their colours publically to the Monet European super-state mast, I’ll willingly accept the sincerity of their commitment to neo-utilitarian political philosophy. Until that time, I can only take their argument for what it is, ideologically driven (albeit banal and mainstream) British nationalism masquerading as some sort of ‘common sense’, pragmatic, empiricism (which it is not).

    There is nothing wrong with that sort of nationalism, incidentally. I just wish they were more honest about it.

  6. I don’t buy the premise of this article or the earlier comments. Welsh devolution was flawed from the start, it was the most Ron Davies could persuade the Labour party to accept. Hence the almost immediate pressure to change the Assembly’s powers, e.g. secure limited law-making powers. Hence also the ludicrous interventions by the Attorney-General via the Supreme Court seeking to overturn Assembly decisions. And the London parties have still failed to come up with a clear solution, witness the grudging St David’s Day package, which even fails to propose devolution of policing and the courts.

    By now all recent developments such as the Silk commission have been rendered out of date by developments in Scotland. There is no long-term case for treating Wales as a third-class nation.

  7. Anne is absolutely right with her main premise but surprised she didn’t observe that ‘More Devolution’ in the Welsh context is politics driven primarily by various interest groups with commitment to the Y Fro philosophy and aided by the Welsh media, which also has significant nationalist leanings.

    As I see it, any open and transparent debate on devolution including failings in Education and NHS is swiftly shut down by the media and most people are in the dark as to what’s really happening in Wales and especially who are the principal beneficiaries of Welsh devolution – As they say ‘Ignorance is a Bliss’!?

  8. Jacques Protic is correct. The Welsh media are extreme Welsh nationalists, who oppose anything from outside. BBC Wales and The Western Mail are the worst with their pro-Labour, pro-Cymraeg bias. Anne Wareham’s article is very good. She is right to call for a moratorium on devolution, and I think most people now accept that we have to seek a return to centralism, where confident and experienced London rules over the tattered Welsh region.

  9. I say again, a United Kingdom had a purpose, a purpose thought worthy of funding by the English taxpayer. A devolved or federal UK doesn’t have quite the same emotional appeal or financial advantages.

    Insofar as the English taxpayer is increasingly unwilling to fund the full costs of Welsh devolution are we now prepared to accept the financial burden ourselves? I suspect not.

    Forget moratorium, it’s time for a referendum.

  10. Phil, do not fool yourself. Honestly, if you could somehow look into our minds, you would see neither nationalism nor utilitarianism but pure pragmatism. The real issue is whether we live in a sovereign polity within boundaries likely to yield bad government or one considerably less bad. The colours of the flags on each are a matter of relative unimportance.

  11. This article is right on a couple of issues, namely that Wales suffers from being a one party state with a lack of a clear choice, that most people read or watch a London/English focused media and we have poor leadership which tends towards quick fix/simple solution politics. We suffer from all these problems.

    I believe Anne is wrong in her prescription and what she implies is the root problem, which some of the commentators above have picked up on. Despite the attempt to blame Welsh devolution and to suggest that power is unrelated to policy, I do not think devolution has been either rushed or forced on the Welsh population. It has certainly been fudged, but we are going back to the 1950’s, arguably earlier, to find the beginnings of Welsh devolution, we have had 3 referendums on the subject, and the most recent one strongly endorsed further devolution. Democratic (partially accountable) devolution sped things up from 1999, but it was clear from the start that the system was a mess (more correctly a Labour stitch up) and needed fixing. The Richard commission set out a sensible settlement in 2004 and we have been working towards that very slowly and painfully since then.

    If the Welsh and British political establishments could grasp the nettle and finally implement the main Richard commission proposals (with some of the Silk add ons) then we might leave the powers argument behind for some time, and have time to focus on the more important things. Some credit is due here to Stephen Crabb who does appear to want to achieve this. But Labour aren’t very keen, which leads on to my next point.

    Labour are split on devolution and are more sceptical than many believe. They like the power it provides, but not the responsibility, which is why they are so confused on fiscal devolution. This is an area where right wingers, who are generally against fiscal devolution because they understandably don’t trust Labour, aid the Labour party by arguing against further devolution. An attempt to make the Welsh Government more accountable for the money it spends, and to give Welsh voters more choice on tax (e.g. lower taxes?) is opposed because it is ‘more devolution’. Welsh Labour must be laughing at them.

    It is the same with the number of Assembly Members, opposed because it means more politicians in the profligate Welsh Assembly, which again benefits Labour which stands to lose out most from a more proportional Assembly. The supporters of the two parties which would gain most from a bigger Assembly (80 to 100 members), the Conservatives and UKIP are the ones most likely to argue against this move. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    And still at the end of all this we will have one of the least devolved/autonomous sub state legislatures in the world. I am living in Australia at the moment where the New South Wales state election campaign is in full swing. I think if I tried to explain the Welsh situation to them, they would probably laugh at me and tell us to have more pride in ourselves. We can do better then this, but only if we start to identify the real problems with the governance of our country and stop imagining we are destined to failure.

  12. A referendum will come Karen. But it will be a referendum on EU membership. When the UK votes to leave, Scotland will go its own way, and will then re-enter the EU. Wales will eventually be absorbed into the English state; moves to integrate the EnglandWales economy is in motion. So there will be no need for a referendum on devolution. Be patient Karen, as a better society awaits for our region.

  13. Should we have a moratorium on devolution in Wales to concentrate on performance? – I don’t think it would be a bad idea to let the new powers come through from the St David’s Day statements (most importantly the reserved powers model) and then gradually acquire those set out in the Silk report. Some sort of financial accountability, through some income tax raising powers is also essential – for the reasons continuously trumpeted by Glyn Davies MP. We must also remember that the reasoning for much of the accumulation of powers since 1997 (and the reserved powers model to come) was due to the unworkable and haphazard nature of the unique devolution model first given to the Assembly. Through their own actions even the Tories now admit the original model was absurd.

    As for those who continually call for a halt to further devolution, for the most part these calls appear to come, disingenuously, from those who actually don’t want to see any form of devolution; but realise that that’s never going to happen. I note that those above who back Anne’s, at times confusing article, do so with the normal mixture of anti-Welsh language hysteria; belief that the people of Wales are complete incompetents; convenient forgetting of the overwhelming mandate given by the Welsh public in 2011 for the Assembly to gain full legislative powers as well as consistent opinion poll backing for further devolution; and the normal dose of right-wing paranoia of the Welsh media and all its diabolical allies.

    By the way Phil see Anne’s Twitter account for an unhealthy obsession with the EU.

  14. Daniel Lawrence is entirely right in every particular. Whatever fantasies of Westminster competence the other correspondents entertain, there is no gainsaying that Wales is irrelevant to Westminster. So in any case where Welsh circumstances or needs differ from those of marginal seats in England, without devolution Welsh interests will be ignored. The only solution is to have a little pride and work to improve Welsh politics. Why despair so early of your fellow citizens and crave to go back to nursey? Where is your self-respect?

  15. The ‘problem’ with current devolution settlement and additional powers is the a)structure of Wales and b)the political realities of an over managed public sector.There is always a price to anything and more powers to the Bay ‘elite’,must result in reduction in numbers of MP’s,and eventually ‘cuts’ in funding from England as we remove ourselves from the UK. The welsh people were ‘sold a pup’ in 1997 and results of devolution have been mixed at the best,and even after the unprecedented flows of money from the Treasury/Europe in last 15 years. The structure is completely ‘unstable’,and does not meet the needs of ordinary people like myself,whilst the political classes now have ‘salaries’ whilst working at a)Local.b)Asembly,c) Westminster,d) European levels. There needs to be a ‘cull’ of at least two of the four levels and power transferred to individuals to take decisions on their lifestyles etc and not ‘mickey mouse’ politicians.In conclusion who has devolution really benefitted so far?.

  16. @Lynn said

    “convenient forgetting of the overwhelming mandate given by the Welsh public in 2011 for the Assembly to gain full legislative powers”

    ah yes the referendum that was deviously sold as a “simple tidying up exercise” and which Carwyn Jones was saying prior to the vote “If tax raising powers were on the table I would be campaigning for a No vote”. What percentage of the electorate turned out to vote?? remind us please

    @ Lynn said
    “By the way Phil see Anne’s Twitter account for an unhealthy obsession with the EU”

    hmm, might I suggest that trawling peoples twitter accounts is a bit of an unhealthy obsession in itself! If the cap fits and all…

  17. JWR

    You can’t argue that administrative ‘efficiency’ should be the sole determinant for constitutional design whilst at the same time arguing against constitutional structures which can be proved ‘efficient’. Put another way, by claiming that optimal efficiency is located at only one level (Westminster in your case) you logically preclude all possibility of superior, empirically derived alternatives or a range of vertical and horizontal systems (some economies of scale at an EU level for example, or efficiencies of proximity at a more local level, efficient assymetries here, efficient uniformity there).

    You might not like the fact that some market regulations are more efficiently determined at an EU level, or that configuration of health services is more efficiently determined at a sub-national level, but that is not the same as ‘evidence’ to contradict the empirical case that they are. You cannot use a discourse of science and efficiency to justify one idealised construct (the UK) and then abandon their underlying principles when arguing against another one (the EU).

    You have two options:

    Accept that efficiencies can exist at all sorts of constitutional levels and proceed from there.
    Accept that constitutions are not solely determined by efficiencies and proceed from there.

    But let’s be clear, the UK ‘administrative centralism’ you promote is not a politics of empiricism, that is derived from observation, it is a politics of idealism, that is derived from ideals or concepts in themselves, as are all nationalisms and cultural constructs of course. I happen to agree with you that the ‘cultural construct’ continues to have an important role in determining political realities (most efforts to ‘transcend’ it have ended in failure thus far). We just differ in which construct we place primacy.

  18. If the question is one of performance, then the answer is to have performance measures and scrutiny in place. The answer is most definitely NOT to fold Wales into England or to ‘cull’ two of our layers of government. Take your blue tinted glasses off for a moment and you will realise that having different layers of government is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as civil society is active enough to scrutinise them. And we should put to bed the ridiculous notion that our historic use of English funding nullifies our right to devolved politics – the UK Treasury understands, as do most economists, that transfers of wealth from wealthy to poorer regions are normal and necessary, have benefits for ALL (including the English taxpayers that Karen et al care so much about) and should have no bearing on political will. Can you imagine if you people on JSA were told how to vote? Me neither, because when you redistribute wealth to people who need it you don’t get to tell them what to think.

    On the ‘one-party state’ – this is the real problem of devolution, not the constitution, or powers, or the English taxpayer or anything else. Labour take a lot of flack for essentially being really successful. And yet everytime I listen to the Welsh Conservatives I realise that they don’t say anything that I want to hear, and often plenty of things that I really don’t want to hear. They are a very poor opposition as they have never tried to win over anyone that doesn’t already vote for them, something that can be blamed on the strategies of British Conservatism in general in the last 30 years. Hence why Andrew R.T. Davies is the least well recognised of all Welsh party leaders, and why David Cameron couldn’t win a majority against the disaster that was Gordon Brown, and why they gained only 16% of the ethnic minority vote across the UK in 2010. Labour could do a much better job of governing Wales, but they aren’t going to turn down an easy job if no one is going to force them to.

    The comments on the IWA blog are getting gloomier by the day. If this was a reflection of our civil society, then maybe we should just give up on Wales. Thankfully, I don’t believe that the majority of Welsh people have so much fear of England, of our Government, our Assembly, our public services, or of the EU. You all need to lighten up a bit, you will live longer.

  19. Phil, leaving aside the fact that you attribute to me arguments that were never actually made, your basic point seems to be that different state services are delivered most efficiently at different levels. In theory, this is in fact a legitimate point – in theory. It was, for example, the theory behind Heath’s imposition of a national two-tier system of local government. You will recall that, although the theory looked fine on paper, it proved a disaster in practice on that occasion. Indeed, the theory rarely works in practice because the division of responsibility between tiers always lacks sufficient clarity unless supervised by a strong sovereign authority. Such supervising authority is absent in multi-tier democratic structures, where the voters are uncertain where accountability lies between tiers, and politicians and bureaucrats at all levels take advantage of that ambiguity to try to increase their authority, resulting in duplication and inter-tier conflict. You mention Europe, which is a good case in point.

    If management efficiency is the only factor in structure – which, of course, it should not be in a democratic structure – then the key is to have responsibility and authority clearly in the same place. The best account of the management principles behind this is probably here:

  20. JWR,

    I thought you were arguing your case on the basis of what we might broadly call ‘political’ theory, or perhaps even a newer hybrid ‘politics through the business school looking glass’. But now I see you are looking at it through management theory alone. I’m afraid the theoretical and practical limitations of management theory’s ‘point de capiton’ (efficient stewardship of capital) prevent me from engaging too enthusiastically with you on this one. It simply asks the wrong question for a broader discussion on constitutions in my opinion, and all discussions will reductively come back to the same unresolved dispute.

    Current management theory as developed in business schools will help you answer the question, ‘how do we as owners/stewards of capital most efficiently manage that capital (optimum returns through financial / organisational efficiency) in a way in which those without capital (labour) will be motivated to deliver those efficiencies (performance management / social responsibility / equality agendas, etc.)’? I’m afraid that question is a little too limited for my sort of political philosophy, and is the wrong starting place for a discussion of what the state is for and how it should be structured.

  21. Phil, you were the one who raised efficiency. You will note the comment in response that it should not be the only factor in democratic structures.

    On the broader question of political philosophy, which we both find more interesting, it is convenient for libertarians that the best management theory happens to coincide with the moral belief that power should be decentralised as much as possible, ideally to the family and the individual. Some of us would hold this moral position even if it was inefficient, but all the evidence we have suggests that it is also more often than not the most efficient management structure, so we are not forced to choose between morality and efficiency.

  22. Lynn: ” as well as consistent opinion poll backing for further devolution;”

    I don’t know how many times I have said this but…..opinion polls consistently show a majority in favour of the status quo, less devolution or abolition of the Assembly.

    The people who want Independence or more devolution are consistently in a minority.

  23. The Welsh assembly is not fit for purpose. Wales cannot afford to be run by a bunch of non starters. Wales should return to English power and let the people of Wales speak. We will regain billions in return through desolving the assemblyWelsh. Plaid cymru is andbwill always remain a NATIONALIST party with rebounding. Just like The Scottish NATIONALIST party. Out to divide not to unite think on Wales AM out WELSH ASSEMBLY DISSOLVED

  24. Dianne Ford: It is the Scottish National, not Nationalist, Party. Assume that if you wish to scrap the Assembly you want to see the return of centralised rule under one of the London-based ‘Nationalist’ parties? Your favoured “return to English power” may well be an option, but that still leaves nationalism – albeit English or British nationalism – as the ideological driver.

  25. how many people commenting here are even welsh? Please to talking about Wales as if its a little English region. Its a nation in its own right and Welsh people will fight to keep it that way.

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