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.

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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.

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