Does the Welsh Assembly have a relevance problem?

Marc Thomas argues that the Welsh public simply doesn’t understand what the Welsh Assembly does

Recently, at a party in Abergavenny, a friend asked what I had been doing that day. I mentioned that I had been in the Senedd at an event looking at how the Welsh Assembly could relate more closely to citizens. A puzzled look came over her face as she, a person who has lived in Wales for 10 years now, asked, “What’s the Senedd?”

A great deal has been said in the last year about the relevance of the Welsh Assembly. In recent months, as disillusionment with UK politics has risen and Europe seems increasingly distant from our reach, it appears that more and more people are waking up to the proximity of the Government in Cardiff.

Meanwhile, the Assembly finds itself stymied by partisan squabbling and an existential crisis.

Even Plaid Cymru, a party whose aims I support in general, appear to be so concerned with distinguishing themselves from Labour that the vitriol passing between both sides is alienating  supporters of both those parties. UKIP members appear to be shadowboxing while the Conservative party within the Assembly is unable to tell whether it is a Welsh branch of a UK party or a separate entity.

And so, is it any wonder that a public who are becoming switched on to Welsh politics (many for the first time) appear to be confused by what the relevance of the Assembly is in the first place?

Last year, I read a book written by US Senator Cory Booker. Entitled United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good, the book recounts Booker’s own career, which, although relatively short so far, has been characterised by reconciling partisan voices in order to be more effective within the American democracy.

In addition to the developments in the political everyday within Cardiff Bay, we also face a time of uncertainty for devolution in general.

The General Election campaign in June highlighted a reality that, I think most of us will agree, turned out to be quite an uncomfortable truth.

The contradictory manifestos of the Labour Party and the Party in Wales in particular highlighted that there are those in Wales and outside Wales, both politician and public who are unsure of which matters are devolved.

Many people in Wales seemed to value pledges by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour which dealt with issues such as health and education, both of which are devolved matters over which the Labour government in Cardiff has control – and crucially, has had control of for quite some time now.

This slight jarring of manifestos demonstrates further that the public simply doesn’t understand what the Welsh Assembly does.

It is vital that people like my friend in Abergavenny understand that the Welsh Government is currently protecting their healthcare from the, frankly, vicious dismantling of the NHS that is happening in England. Not only this, but that the majority of AMs in the Welsh Assembly are working towards making Wales a more prosperous and fair place.

Finally, there is the thorny issue of geographical dislocation. This is a problem not only for political institutions in Wales but also for business and the third sector too.

It is well recognised that even in a world where information is placeless, that the physical location of an institution and individual is important.

Talent will continue to locate itself in a location where there is already a high concentration of talent already.

For Wales, the South and in particular South East, is where the majority of government, business and third sector organisations are headquartered. We have a legacy of growth in the coal era to thank/blame for that.

Nevertheless, it is a problem for the Welsh Assembly that so much of the investment, so much of the policy, and so much of the focus is on Cardiff and the capital region.

For this reason, it is not uncommon to hear that people in other areas of Wales are sceptical of the Welsh Assembly and devolution as a whole.

In summary, three problems now face the Welsh Assembly: creating a progressive culture of political co-operation; advancing public understanding of devolution and its workings; and ensuring that the entirety of Wales is a benefactor from the devolution process.

Now, as we enter a period where the UK democracy seems like a farce, it is of the utmost importance that we find a common purpose in Wales. If we fail to do this, we will be overrun by apathy in a time when it is crucial that we create a sense of identity and pride in the country.

This requires leadership from the top as well as a willingness to reconcile very disparate voices to one another at every level of society.

We must identify needs and work together, whether within government or without, to make Wales a more cohesive country with a strong national identity.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.


Marc Thomas is Co-founder of doopoll

6 thoughts on “Does the Welsh Assembly have a relevance problem?

  1. It would appear that your friend does not watch BBC CYMRU/wales at 6.30 p.m. for the news ‘slot’,or what passes for ‘news’ in this region of UK.The obligatory visit by BBC staff to the SENYDD takes place most days so I fail to understand how its existence is an issue,however its effectiveness is another matter. Under devolution the money kindly transferred from English taxpayers, (in the main) is received by the Assembly and then allocated to various bodies,both public and private who then proceed to spend it on ‘approved’ projects/policies etc etc. The ‘disconnect’ between having the money and actually taking responsibility for spending it seems to be the problem as WAG can pass responsibilities on to other bodies,rather that accepting accountability.Perhaps the sheer geography/history of Wales mitigates against the understanding of the need for a devolved body at all,particularly when it comes to the over provision of public bodies/accountability etc etc. Why do we need WAG and huge numbers of civil servants/22 local authorities/Health Boards/Quangos (What happened to the bonfire ?.) Perhaps if BBC CYMRU/wales could take a more vigorous attitude to covering the Senydd,rather than being seen as part of the welsh ‘elite’,who have done very well since devolution,as compared to the ‘plebs’ like myself who see the quality of basic public services going backwards.

  2. This is an excellent article and a good use of the word of the year, ‘existential’. However I must disagree with the central premise that we, the hoi polloi in the Fro, ‘don’t understand’ the Welsh Assembly (now to be called government?). I think most people probably do ‘understand’ in a vague sort of way but only when it impinges on their lives which is rarely. I don’t think we want to be ‘impinged’ more, do you? Do we really need to know what goes on even if it may be ‘relevant’ from time to time? This is what we elect politicians for, is what ‘your friend in Abergavenny’ might have said.
    The call for better ‘leadership’ is interesting and yes it can ‘lead’, us obedient sheeple, to a more cohesive North Korean society but it can also lead to Trumpism, Corbynism, Borisism, Maybotism und so weiter. Politics should continue to be ‘messy’ and less ‘interesting’. We in Wales don’t lack for cradle to grave governance but we do lack good investigative journalism and informed commentary (such as provided by this author and the esteemed IWA).

  3. ‘Meanwhile, the Assembly finds itself stymied by partisan squabbling and an existential crisis.’

    I like the sound of existential crisis! Bring it on!

    Fortunately I’m immune from it – I have always regarded its existence as the crisis.

  4. So long as one ignores the cartoon world view of Assembly Members building a “prosperous and fair” Wales (!) while the English NHS is being “viciously dismantled” (!!!), this article makes an honest point. The Assembly is not deeply established in the public consciousness.

    Like it or not, the problem is conceptual. We need, at most, one legislature. Where there are two or three, the same problem arises that made the old two-tier system of local government so inefficient and led to the establishment of unitary authorities in Wales. Where those in power are themselves sometimes unsure, it is too much to expect the electorate to be clear about who is responsible for what and why. Proper democratic accountability is impossible in such a situation

    …and of course it does not help when those in power, specifically the Welsh Labour Party, mislead the public on this point in order to obscure their own responsibility for issues on which they are campaigning.

  5. “Now, as we enter a period where the UK democracy seems like a farce, it is of the utmost importance that we find a common purpose in Wales.”

    Presumably the “we” refers to the electorate in Cymru.
    As far as the Labour, Conservative and UKip parties are concerned the common purpose that unites them in Wales is their commitment to maintain the base of UK democracy at Westminster regardless of how farcical it may be.

  6. As a firm supporter of democratic government in Wales, I must say Marc Thomas has an inaccurate view of the performance of the Welsh government. Far from protecting the NHS from Westminster it has, I believe, increased spending on health at a slower pace than London has in England. It has done so to protect social care spending from the full force of cuts in England. Unfortunately it has underspent on education at the same time. The Welsh government has no control over the size of its budget which has been dictated from Westminster but it has freedom to spend the money it gets how it likes and should take responsibility for the choices it makes. It is important that the Welsh electorate knows what those choices are if it is to hold the Welsh government to account. Unfortunately no-one really tells the public about the choices and puts them into context. The media don’t do it. Couldn’t the IWA publish an annual budget report, spelling out the big decisions that have been made? Then John Walker and Howell Morgan could make criticisms based on fact rather than on repetitive rhetoric.

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