What a difference a day makes

Jane Davidson gives us a glimpse of her book #futuregen which launches today.

There are political moments which stop you in your tracks and I had one recently. On 20th May, the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was taking questions in the House of Commons.

The new Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, challenged the Prime Minister to exempt health and social care workers from the NHS surcharge (the additional money immigrants to the UK pay for health cover) in light of the extraordinary contribution those same immigrants have made to keeping UK citizens well looked after during this tragic outbreak.

The PM declined, quoting the £900 million annually that the contribution brought to the Treasury. Following a significant public backlash, within 24 hours, the PM reconsidered the position and acceded to the Opposition’s request. 

As someone who thought the original decision was wrong and insensitive, particularly in our current COVID-19 circumstances and the extraordinary sacrifices that are being made, I was delighted at the U-turn, but unsettled at the process of its making.

Was the decision to remove the surcharge for this group made as quickly as the policy was created?What kind of analysis of the implications of the new policy had been undertaken in the previous 24 hours?

From what budget would the necessary additional funding for the NHS to come? Had all the decision-making rules of good governance been torn up in a time of crisis?

I was reminded of another political moment in a very different context. In 2001, as Educational and Lifelong Learning Minister, I published a document called ‘The Learning Country’, keen to work with providers and citizens to create a long term, overarching strategic vision for Welsh education and lifelong learning.

As an ex teacher, who had taught pre and post the introduction of the first National Curriculum, I was acutely aware that changing a school education system takes years – in fact the school lifetime of those who enter the system through nursery at the age of 3 and leave at the age of 18; i.e. 15 years; or 11 years if you tighten the cohort to compulsory school age.

I thought I was on safe ground therefore when I determined that the document we were launching for consultation would be a ten-year strategy. My first question at the press conference quickly disabused me of that as I was criticised for proposing changes that went beyond the lifespan (4 years at that time) of the administration as a ‘deliberately tactic to avoid personal accountability’.

These two examples make an interesting contrast – in the first, the government accountability is clear even though the financial consequences are not; in the second, because the accountability for whole system change is shared between successive administrations in order to secure the financing, it was seen as deliberately avoiding the personal responsibility of an individual minister. What is politics to do?

One of the tenets of the Attlee post World War II government in 1945 was to create a long-term vision of opportunity for the next generation and beyond. After six long years, battered by war, the voters wanted an end to wartime austerity. The country might be broke, but they wanted hope. And they voted in their millions for a collective vision of a welfare state which leaves no-one left behind.

I’ve spent years feeling that my generation is a bad ancestor. The war generation wanted their children to succeed to make up for their ultimate sacrifice; for us to have lives without war, without want, with opportunity, with full employment, with decent housing.

We should have been that standard-bearer, but instead what I see today is an erosion of that vision, young people who are poorer, less likely to be home-owners or to have pensions than my generation. If you’re under 30 now, you have probably acquired thousands in student debt, had your wages held down by austerity and seen public services and opportunities shrink.

You and your friends are probably furloughed, with your education on hold, living in poor accommodation and worried about losing your job later this year. More of you are seeking mental health support than ever before. Last week, I heard a newscaster say, ‘I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, but do we just have to write this generation off?’ Emphatically no, but perhaps now is the time to press a re-set button post-COVID 19 to ensure that future generations do not continue to pay a further price for the inability of my generation to think long term.

The governments of all nations in the UK have been given a once in a life-time chance to build back better. As John Rawls, the American philosopher says, ’do unto future generations what you would have had past generations do unto you.’ 

John Rawls’ philosophy has guided my life and work, so I was delighted that in Wales, my proposal for a law to protect the rights of future generations, was carried through by the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales – the first country in the world to make such a commitment.

This proposition didn’t come out of nowhere – in fact a duty to promote sustainable development in everything the National Assembly did was contained in the first Government of Wales Act. It was only when this clearly became insufficient to drive system change that the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act was mooted and which came into law in 2015.

The legal obligations cross all key Welsh Government responsibilities: health, education, economy, climate change, environment, energy, culture, heritage, communities, equality and global presence. 

In a democracy, good governance and decision-making foster trust. The journey to the Act in Wales has been a long and bumpy road, but the ambition of it has given Wales a massive global opportunity. By enshrining intergenerational justice into law, current and future governments are required to deliver on the Act’s obligations, and the world is watching.

How they deliver is also enshrined in law – they must think long-term, preventatively, collaborate with others, integrate their outcomes and involve those affected by decisions. Importantly, the Welsh Government does not mark its own homework: there is an independent Future Generations’ Commissioner and Auditor General to apply external pressure, as ultimately can the courts. 

Passing an Act does not of itself make change even if Wales has been catapulted into global recognition following Royal Assent on the 29th April 2015. The UN said, ‘what Wales does today, the world will do tomorrow’.

The opportunity now lies with the current and future governments of Wales to demonstrate that decision-making in Wales is different because of their Act and that future historians will see action commensurate with the ambition, not least on climate change.

I hope that my analysis of the journey – the highs and the lows – and the 140 voices that have contributed to the book will go some way to addressing how other countries may learn from Wales’ experience and consider applying such principles in their own setting.

#futuregen: lessons from a small country published 4th June 2020. You can attend the launch on zoom at 5:30 by clicking here.


Jane Davidson was Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing in the Welsh Government from 207-2011. She is the author of #futuregen: Lessons from a Small Country (2020), recently updated in Welsh (2022#futuregen: Gwersi o Wlad Fechan. She has been recently invited to lead the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru’s commitment to examine potential pathways to accelerate Net Zero to 2035.

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