Growing Welsh Civil Society

John Osmond on a project probing how effective the National Assembly has been in creating a grassroots democracy

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

Back in 1998, just ahead of the first elections to the National Assembly, I wrote a pamphlet for Charter 88, an organisation then campaigning for constitutional change in Britain, entitled New Politics in Wales. This argued that the whole political landscape was changing under our feet. In particular I argued that we were entering a new era of political pluralism in which coalition government would become the norm. I predicted, too, that the Welsh Government would decentralise its operation, establishing important new offices in places like Merthyr, Aberystwyth and Llandudno Junction (pictured).

I said, too, perhaps more incautiously, that Britain was turning into a union rather than a unitary state that would allow Wales more opportunities to represent itself more directly within the European Union. “With the emergence of regional structures, now within all the member states, we have the possibility of beginning to construct Europe from below in a more democratic fashion,” I optimistically opined.

But at the heart of the pamphlet was a clarion call for the emergence of a more distinctive Welsh civil society. As I put it, “The new Welsh politics is about creating a new democracy and a new civil society to make the democracy work.” I wasn’t alone in judging this to be important. Two major academic books have appeared in the last few years addressing the issue, both by the University of Wales Press. An edited collection, Civil Society in Wales was published in 2006, and Aberystwyth University lecturer Elin Royles published Revitalising Democracy: Devolution and Civil Society in Wales a year later. The need for a strong civil society was summed up by Rhodri Morgan in a preface to the former publication. As he put it:

“As well as horizontal devolution – spreading power and responsibility more widely – we have to have vertical devolution as well. I have sometimes tried to sum up this dimension by describing our devolution settlement as a shift from crachach to gwerin, from government by a self-replicating élite to a new engagement with a far wider and more representative group of people, women and men, people from north and south Wales, Welsh speakers and not, black people as well as white, and so on.”

So more than ten years into the project how successful have we been in creating what we might call Welsh civil society, rather than a civil society that happens to be located within the geographical boundaries of Wales, but one that is essentially an offshoot of England, and specifically London? In an effort to answer this question we are organising four seminars through October and November, each probing different aspects of civil society in action. Each seminar is being organised with a key Welsh civil society organisation working in the field:

The project is being undertaken in association with the Carnegie UK Trust which earlier this year published the findings of its Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland, Making Good Society. Our seminars follow the main sections of this report and aim to discover the extent of the Welsh response to the engagement challenges it sets out.

In each case we have invited four expert speakers to engage the contents of the Carnegie report in presentations of ten-minutes each. Debate and discussion will follow, mediated by a separate chair for each seminar. Full details of the seminars can be found here.

For me these events will be testing what I have always believed should be the main devolution dividend, the creation from the bottom-up of a functioning Welsh democracy. As I put it, in that pamphlet back in 1998, “When it first meets, the National Assembly will not be representative of [Welsh] civil society. But it will be the essential instrument to ensure that in the coming decades, a Welsh democracy and a Welsh civil society come into being.”  Looking back I’m glad I put an ‘s’ on that word decade. Nonetheless, we have grounds for optimism.

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