Devolution 2.0

John Winterson Richards proposes an alternative model of national Governance for Wales

Even if the fault lies in its remit rather than its recommendations, the McAllister Panel has missed the point entirely. If there is to be serious political development within Wales, both supporters and opponents of devolution must accept fairly obvious but unpleasant truths.

Devolutionists must admit that the Welsh Assembly has failed to achieve the objectives they themselves set for it 1997. It is is difficult, arguably impossible, to point to any great improvement in the lives of most Welsh people that justifies the hundreds of millions spent on additional administration in the last eighteen years. The economic gap with England has widened and there is no real evidence of an overall improvement in Welsh public services relative to England. The Assembly itself has not really engaged public attention, judging by the low turnout in its elections and the 2011 Referendum. The contrast with Scotland in this respect is glaring. The appointment of the McAllister Panel is itself acknowledgement that there is a problem, even if it seems unlikely that its proposals will prove the solution.

At the same time, Unionists must understand that devolution is not going to go away. Indeed, the reason why many voted for or against it in 1997 was their hope or fear that it was the beginning of a journey that could end only in independence, or at least a level of autonomy that would amount to much the same thing. Certainly the prediction that, once it was brought into being, the Assembly would, like all political organisations, seek to increase its own power has proved correct. So has the more obscure prediction that much of the drive to increase the Assembly’s powers would come from outside Wales. A 2010 article in the welsh agenda now looks particularly prescient on this point. All the main parties have too much invested in devolution to go back now.

Once these two facts are conceded, the question becomes how can devolution be made to work? Can it be rebooted? Is there a model of devolution other than that of the failed Assembly?

Yes. Such a model is the “strong executive” model. Instead of a weak executive subject to a legislative assembly, let the people elect a strong chief executive directly. There is nothing new in this. It is a model used in national and local government all over the world. It is the model that is being pushed in England in the form of directly elected mayors and “super mayors” of regional or sub-regional “combined authorities.” Since some of these “combined authorities” have a population not far short of that of Wales, they provide a useful template, albeit one that need not be followed slavishly. They certainly prove that there is nothing administratively inconceivable about replacing the Assembly with a directly elected equivalent of a “mayor of Wales.”

Of course, the title “mayor” is really inadequate for a regional chief executive, and confusing where the local authorities within that region have their own mayors. It would certainly be inappropriate for the directly elected chief executive of the Welsh nation.

So why not revive the old title “President of the Council of Wales”? Ignored by popular history, this was the designation of the top official in Wales for about two centuries, from the end of the Middle Ages to the Stuarts. At its peak under the Tudors, the Council of Wales was noted for its efficiency and its popularity with the “oppressed poor,” a tradition it would be pleasant to revive.

If the “combined authority” model was followed, the new President would be elected directly by the people but the Council would not. Instead it would consist of a representative of each of the unitary authorities of Wales, elected annually. The advantage of this is that the Council would be better enabled to carry out a task which was one of the few administrative justifications for the Assembly but about which it has done very little, the coordination of the unitary authorities. In particular, it was always envisaged at the time of the establishment of the unitary authorities that they would work closely together to provide joint services. They have failed to do so. Correcting this would be at the top of the job descriptions of both President and Council.

Unlike the Assembly, the Council would not be in semi-permanent session but would meet occasionally, probably only a few times a year. Instead of retaining its own expensive building, it would hire a county council chamber for the day. It would therefore meet all over Wales, not just in Cardiff.

Members would receive a modest attendance allowance and out-of-pocket expenses rather than a full time salary. They would elect a Standing Committee to provide scrutiny between plenary meetings. Scrutiny would also be provided by the Welsh Affairs Select Committee of the Commons.

Otherwise, the President would be responsible directly to the Welsh people. He would have broad executive powers, including the right to nominate his own Cabinet.

Wales being Wales, there would have to be checks to prevent the abuse of power. The following officials should therefore be appointed independently of the President: the Secretary of the Council, the head of its permanent civil service; the Clerk of the Council, responsible for keeping honest records; the Attorney General of Wales, the legal adviser of both President and Council; the Comptroller of Wales, responsible for approving all contracts and expenditure; and the Auditor General of Wales.

The President would be elected directly by the people of Wales through a method that ensured that all their votes were of equal value and which minimised the probability of one party maintaining a hegemony. Having two rounds of voting might be the best option to this end, but that is open to debate.

Arrangements similar to those for “English votes for English laws” could negate the need for a separate Welsh legislature. Welsh Members of the House of Commons, in effect the Welsh Grand Committee, could be given the right of veto on laws specific to Wales. There is no reason why there should be many of these, apart from those relating to Welsh language, culture, and heritage. Otherwise a good law for Wales ought to be a good law for the rest of the United Kingdom and vice versa.

As a gesture towards nationalist sentiment, the Council of Wales and the Welsh Grand Committee, less all non-Welsh MPs, could be designated as the Upper and Lower Chambers of a bicameral “Parliament of Wales” to consider any primary or secondary legislation specific to Wales. It might meet for a week or so in an annual plenary session in Wales, during the long Westminster recess, again in a hired county council chamber, the venue changing every year from one part of Wales to another.

This system would have several advantages over the current situation. For one thing, it would be a lot cheaper. Authority and responsibility would rest clearly in the same place, in a single individual accountable to the people directly. This might attract strong candidates to stand for the Presidency, including high achievers outside the party system. The Presidential election would be more likely to engage public interest than the Assembly’s game of musical chairs that offers little prospect of change. It would no longer be practically inevitable that Labour would remain in control.  If a strong personality was elected, he – or, of course, she – might really put Wales on the global map. The Presidency and the Parliament would add more dignity to the concept of Wales as a nation than an Assembly. The government of Wales would move out of the Cardiff Bay bubble to county halls all over the land.

There is only one disadvantage. None of this is going to happen.

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


John Winterson Richards was the last Leader of the Opposition on the old Cardiff City Council before Local Government Reorganisation in 1996. He retired from public life in 1999, since when he has been a political independent.

9 thoughts on “Devolution 2.0

  1. The economic gap with England has widen. No the economic gap with London has widen. The economic gap with the rest of England and London has widen. The Welsh economy is actually doing well under devolution

  2. The problem with the success or lack thereof of the Assembly is that we have had one party in power the entire time (sometimes in coalition), and they’re utterly useless. The principal of Welsh self-rule isn’t at fault, the Labour party is. Getting rid of the Assembly would only make a small amount of sense if every other party had run the government at least once, and still nothing had changed. Transmit the problem to England for a second. It’s fairly universally believed that Teresa May is making a total hash of everything, but I don’t hear people calling in the Telegraph and the Times for the monarchy to take over the direct running of the country. Why the double standard towards Wales?

  3. It’s an interesting argument (although not one I support). However, the article’s history is more than a little shaky. There was never the historical Council of Wales that the piece references. During the late medieval and Tudoe times, there was a Council for Wales and the Marches, whose remit included – in pracxtice – a number of English border counties and cities. Though it had an administrative role (and sometimes served as the Household of the Prince of Wales), it became increasingly focused on justice and the emforcement of law and order. So there’s certainly no clear read across to the modern Council being proposed. And although the Council became a very efficient body in much of its’ work, I’m not at all sure there’s the hard historical evidence for the presumed popularity of the Council amongst the ‘oppressed poor’……..

  4. ‘Such a model is the “strong executive” model.’

    Wales used to have a strong executive model – it was called the Welsh Office. It wasn’t elected, it certainly wasn’t perfect, it did slow down the decision-making process and also the ability to act quickly in the event of unforeseen emergencies, but it served as an umbrella link between the legislative and non-legislative bodies in Wales that actually did the work and the elected government of the day. It therefore had the necessary ‘democratic’ legitimacy.

    Was it beneficial? Probably not… Was it necessary? No! Is anything else necessary? No!

  5. John Winterton Richards appears to blame the current model for the poor levels of electoral participation compared with Scotland. In a piece for Click on Wales last July Martin Shipton made the point (albeit in a different context) that Wales has such a weak indigenous media (compared with Scotland and Northern Ireland) that coverage of Welsh affairs is much lower than is perhaps necessary to engage the electorate to a level that will stimulate greater participation.

    He further assumes that our current model of Unitary Authorities will persist. The jury is still out on that although his model could arguably justify their future, but none of that would necessarily increase electoral participation. This is and will remain a major challenge for Welsh politics.

  6. If we’re going to adopt the constitutional mores of the Middle Ages why bother with the time, effort and expense of electing a “President of the Council of Wales”.
    To complete the comedy effect of Devolution 2.0 invest Prince Harry.

  7. This solution comes from a very flawed analysis of the problem.

    First: Welsh Government is more effective and more accessible than what preceded it.

    Second: The Welsh Government has limited governance over us compared to England.

    The real problem is the incompetence, corruption, racism and lack of democracy of Westminster Imperialism. Even Farage equated it with evil as it seeks to construct a single Supra-National English state.

    Nations have their own governments not because it is more effective but because it is not only their basic human right to run their own affair,s but their duty. From that they must co-operate with others, not subjugate them. Something the Brexit movement turns on its head.

  8. Thank you all for your comments. Sorry it is not possible to respond to them all in detail as they deserve.

    Pam, the GVA statistics show a definite widening gap. If one wants to distinguish between a nation and its capital, Cardiff may, ironically, have benefitted economically from devolution in a way that most counties that voted for it have not. Whether the City is better off in non-economic terms as a result is more debatable.

    James, there may indeed have been occasions in the last 66 years when direct rule by Queen Elizabeth might have been better than what we had at the time! However, we live in an age of democracy and what is proposed here is simply the direct election of a head of government rather than an indirect election.

    Paul, the reference to the “oppressed poor” is a quote from a contemporary scholar, George Owen of Henllys. You are, of course, correct that the historical Council was not a modern, democratic organisation – but then nothing was, not even Parliament. What is suggested here is a new 21st Century organisation, modern and democratic, just more historically aware than the current setup.

    JRW, you are right that there is no pressing administrative necessity for a Welsh level of government of any sort, but, if we are to move towards a generally acceptable consensus, we have to acknowledge that many in Wales do feel the need for separate political organisation in order to express their nationality, even if others do not.

    Robin, while the media may share part of the blame, the real problem is structural: there is little correlation between votes in Assembly elections and the probability of change unless a single opposition party performs extraordinarily well, which is, by definition, unlikely.

    CapM, the direct election of a head of government by universal suffrage is not a feature of “the constitutional mores of the Middle Ages” – or of the current system. “Why bother?” The last three hundred years of history suggest democracy is usually the least inefficient and immoral form of government. That said, an amiable young retired army officer with a strong personal commitment to charity work and no partisan axe to grind might indeed be a better bet as a leader than most of the party hacks currently on offer. Of course, a Royal Prince could never stand in a public election – but, if he did, he might well win. Perhaps this thought might prompt a popular non-Royal to consider running. Anyway, better a lively comedy than a dull tragedy.

  9. @JWR
    “the direct election of a head of government by universal suffrage is not a feature of “the constitutional mores of the Middle Ages”

    Which is why I said invest and not elect. His father got the PoW job without any election.
    It’s only Wales after all and we’ve accepted Secretaries of State(for Wales) that we didn’t elect for generations.
    One person’s lively comedy is another person’s sick joke.

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