Whatever London does we can do the opposite

Jon Owen Jones argues that devolution has been hampered by the absence of responsibility for taxation

Jon Owen Jones is a former Welsh Office Minister and Labour MP for Cardiff Central. This article appears in the current issue of the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda.

Before devolution the Welsh Office was a mere Whitehall cypher following every policy directed by Westminster. That is now the popular view but the reality was somewhat different. Welsh Secretaries of State were surprisingly independent. During the Thatcher years the Cardiff Office policy was One Nation Conservatism under a succession of ‘wet’ Ministers, Peter Walker, David Hunt and to a lesser extent Nick Edwards. When John Major became Prime Minister and moved his party towards the centre ground the Welsh Office became an outpost of robust monetarism under John Redwood. It was almost as if the Welsh Office had to justify its existence by conducting policies in contradiction to those in London. Of course all that changed in 1999… or did it?

New Labour gave birth to the Assembly but its conception owed more to John Smith than to his successor. Tony Blair was hardly an enthusiast. However, the fierce opposition to devolution within the Welsh Labour party came from Old Labour – their opposition is now largely forgotten as so many of its members later emulated the Vicar of Bray in their contortions of principled opposition and support.

The Assembly’s first year could hardly have been more difficult. With the narrowest of mandates the Assembly lost three of its four party leaders in its first year. Indeed, it lost it’s would be leader even before it assumed power. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the new institution didn’t initiate a wide range of new policies.  Instead, it would distinguish itself by not doing whatever London was doing. London was beginning to do New Labour and the new fragile institution had several reasons to dissociate itself from that.

The New Labour brand was tarnished in Wales by Tony Blair’s attempt to impose his candidate as First Minister. Not only was this the antithesis of devolution but it also wasn’t new labour. Instead of basing his decision on evidence, the Prime Minister simply did what he wanted to do and his acolytes tried to make the evidence fit. He later made the brand really toxic by similar behaviour over Iraq.

After four successive electoral defeats New Labour`s purpose was clear: to win back the trust and then the votes of a decisive section of the UK electorate. It succeeded by ditching ideological commitments, which it no longer, if it ever had, believed in. On my party card was written Clause 4 of our constitution which promised to bring the means of production distribution and exchange into common ownership. Before New Labour, we said that we intended to nationalise almost everything. Having slaughtered that shibboleth we began to question the role that ideology played in practical governance. In the provision of services shouldn’t we be open minded in seeking solutions and not blinkered by preconceived ideas.  What mattered is what worked!

Welsh Labour in the Assembly couldn’t rewrite Clause 4 onto its party cards but it did its best to reject the philosophy behind New Labour. Public service reform may benefit the public but it often threatens the vested interests of some who produce those services. The Assembly could become a champion of producer interest and be praised in the Guardian simply by doing nothing. Those producer interests that had once largely opposed devolution suddenly now became its champions. Not only did this policy have support in Wales but it also gained very favourable coverage in the parts of the London media that opposed public service reform.

Politics in the Assembly is different to Westminster for a number of reasons but possibly the most important are that in Cardiff the great inherent conflict of politics is absent. Almost everywhere else, even at community council level, a balance must be struck between the desire of the public for goods or services and their willingness to pay for them. All governing parties have to address both arguments and to some extent New Labour showed a greater sensitivity to those worried about their taxes or the value for money that they bought. Since Cardiff couldn’t raise any money, that side of the political equation became redundant. Raising the money was Westminster’s problem and the route to popularity in Cardiff was not to be overly sympathetic to the difficulties involved.

With Welsh Labour defining itself as left of New Labour what would the other Welsh parties do? Plaid Cymru was then the main opposition and decided that if Welsh Labour wanted clear red water then they wanted even redder water. I think this was a huge strategic error which they have since compounded. Whereas in Scotland the SNP attracted votes from the right and left, here in Wales Plaid abandoned the centre ground. Their mistake was a Conservative opportunity and under Nick Bourne their party moved towards the centre and became more Welsh. Unlike in Scotland the Tory party in Wales thrived under devolution.

However, historically the Tory Party have never been able to gain the support of much more than a third of the people of Wales. The popular mandate had been held by the old Liberal Party and then the Labour Party. Labour recognises Plaid as a potential threat to its hegemony but it does not fear the Conservatives in the same way. In the conduct of its government and in the defence of its policies the Welsh Government is politically safe if it has neutered Plaid Cymru`s opposition. In general there are two ways of doing this: a policy that is seen as being more ‘Welsh’, which usually means being different to whatever is being done in England, or a policy which is perceived as more ideologically left wing.

Any new initiative which is seen as both more Welsh and more socialist is almost impossible for Plaid to criticise. In face of difficult questions on service delivery Welsh Ministers will often respond by explaining that their policy is ideologically better than that pursued in England. It is an answer that ticks both boxes. A UK Minister cannot evade the substance of the question in that way.

With the election of the UK Coalition Government the political climate has changed but that has had little influence on Wales. We can still define ourselves as being different and opposed to solutions not invented here. Economics has had more impact. With ten years of ever expanding budgets the public sector in Wales could avoid confronting producer interests, but with a long term contracting budget that is no longer possible. Education reform has already begun and health will soon follow and local government soon after. So far the main area of difference to England (apart from the delay) is that competition and consumer choice will have no role in Wales.

Lord Jay who served under Harold Wilson wrote in 1937 that, “the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for the people than the people know themselves.” For Wales read the woman in Cathay’s Park. Perhaps she does but if so the evidence will be in the improved and efficient services. In either case it requires an open mind to distinguish the better result.

After 2015 the political context may change again. How would Wales react to a Milliband Government that acted in a far more statist fashion? Would we act in contradiction to the new Whitehall view? We might decide that it’s the evidence that counts and what matters is what works.

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