After a frantic period in politics when, blink and you missed something, things have quietened down somewhat.
No surprise therefore that, with just over a year until the Senedd elections, there’s been plenty of noise about matters constitutional. Is Welsh independence gaining real traction? Is there growing support for closing down our democratically-elected parliament of 20 years standing?
Opinion polls are best treated as the blunt instruments of the political science operating theatre – the problem is, especially in a social media environment, they’ve become the sharp scalpels. Definitively not their strength.
A recent Welsh Barometer Poll asked, for the first time, a direct rather than a multi-option question on abolishing the Senedd. This revealed nearly a quarter of those polled would vote to get rid, causing a mini storm (mainly on Twitter) of incredulity, knowing nods, bile, bravado, scorn and panic. While those loosely associated with Abolish the Assembly seized this as proof that their cause is on the up, devo supporters pointed out that this figure is probably in line with general trends, no more.
In all honesty, I’m less interested in poll projections and more in having a serious, inclusive debate about the future of our democracy. This should be conducted on the front foot and involve more than the usual suspects. Of course, we can ignore the abolitionists, but then we’ll likely be accused of complacency, of refusing to engage with people outside the ‘bubble’, thus playing right into their hands.
I’ve written and said too much publicly to pretend I’m anything other than devo supportive. But I’m also a critical friend of the Senedd and that’s why I consider there to be a bigger, long-term risk from ignoring or ridiculing the abolitionists than from engaging with them.
If we’re to learn the lessons of recent history – the 2016 EU referendum in particular – we need to move the constitutional conversations centre-stage, change the language and shine a more penetrating light into what otherwise risks becoming a classically over-simplified Punch-and-Judy-style debate.
Let’s remember that those arguing for binning the Senedd represent no popular uprising. Unlike independence, there’ve been no ‘Yes Cymru’-style rallies, no popular movement, no public conversations about alternatives to devolution. Instead, like Farage’s Leave campaign, it is intrinsically and fundamentally elitist.
But what clever elites do is manipulate this reality to present themselves and their cause as one of the people versus the establishment. ‘Us’ against ‘them’, even though the leaders are very much part of the ‘them’.
No real thought has gone into their alternatives either. They’ve ranged from a directly-elected First Minister with no government, to direct London rule, to supercharged local government (all of which would cost the taxpayer more, by the way).
While I’m suggesting a lack of real forensic challenge suits opponents better than devo supporters, in a climate so destabilised by deep and unprecedented disregard for politicians, with the dominant narrative coloured by simplistic populism, there are real risks too. But that’s why the forces in favour of devolution should reinvent themselves as the anti-establishment movement, the force for change, for reconnecting politics with the people.
And let’s be radical and go large in constructing this new narrative. Rather than abolition, we should set about convincing people of the need for a better Senedd, one with more powers and one that sharply scrutinises the government to ensure it delivers. We need to be on the front foot, confident and upbeat about the great story there is to tell.
Stopping the abolitionists in their tracks requires a bolder, more competitive politics with bigger ‘asks’. Control over welfare and justice should be demanded by all parties which are serious about making good policy, as should broadcasting. Let there be no more shilly-shallying about the value of bilingualism or about teaching Welsh history. We should ensure that votes for 16 year olds brings proper political education in schools to empower the next generation.
Despite its back-of-a-fag-packet original design – where we were handed a classic hospital pass if ever there was one – the Assembly’s now evolved to resemble a proper parliament. It’s still too small to properly hold the government to account and the calibre of some politicians leaves something to be desired (but so does that of some MPs at Westminster), but it has more of the necessary legislative and financial tools at its disposal.
To abolish it now, against the backdrop of a centralising government with scant interest in Wales and a whopping Commons majority, never mind tectonic plates shifting in Ireland and Scotland, would be an act of unbelievable folly.
Context is everything in politics and, given the legal status of the Senedd, it would require the Conservative party at both UK and Welsh levels to support dismantling the Senedd. An unlikely prospect as, whatever one thinks of Boris Johnson, the former London Mayor doesn’t have constitutional devolution in his sights. And as for the Welsh Conservatives, they’ve no hope of governing in Cardiff Bay if they turn into devo sceptics.
Indeed, there’s a bigger incentive for the Welsh Conservatives to position themselves in a stronger pro-devolution direction to avoid perceptions of being seen as an ‘English’ party. Should the Abolish ‘party’ gain AMs in 2021, opportunities to pressure the Tories are therefore limited – a very different situation to Brexit, where the referendum was a crucial part of Cameron’s attempt to hold together his party. Put simply, without the UK Conservative party on board, there’s no obvious route to a referendum.
Nevertheless, let’s have a look at the abolitionists’ ‘case’ – a double-stringed bow based on cost and antagonism. Properly scrutinised, both ‘rationales’ unravel.
Take cost – the Senedd costs around £58m, and that’s for everything. By way of comparison, the overall cost of Westminster is more than half a billion per year. The planned refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster will set us back nearly £6bn on top. We don’t hear many – especially among those associated with the Abolish the Assembly campaign – calling for the demise of the UK parliament or its government.
Then there are local councils – we have 22 and more than 1,200 elected councillors. All of this screams out for a review of governance in the round which, I suspect, might plump for cuts elsewhere while enlarging the Senedd and populating it with the very best people we can find.
Which moves me to the second argument – antagonism. I could have equally used ‘anger’, ‘disillusion’ or ‘antipathy’ here, but they amount to the same thing. Everyone knows that the chequered history of devolution and its inauspicious beginnings meant a battle for legitimacy or, put simply, efforts to make the Assembly feel relevant and important.
That battle has only partially been won and I’ve always been sceptical of those who quote polling to suggest devolution is the ‘settled will’ of the Welsh people. Virtually nothing is settled now and, however imbued with statutory permanence the Senedd is, its existence depends far more on popular support and engagement than a line in an act. We’ve yet to get turnout over the 50% threshold, after all.
Ignorance of what the Senedd can and cannot do hampers proper engagement. The vast majority still conflate the Welsh Government with the parliament itself – a handy tool likely to be disingenuously manipulated by those arguing for the latter’s demise.
If we choose not to engage with those ‘championing’ abolition, two things could happen. First, Abolish the Assembly continues to jog along largely under the radar towards next May, perhaps picking up a regional AM or two, or maybe just falling short.
Secondly, and more worryingly, they manage to bring together those generally and genuinely disillusioned with politics – for whatever reason, be it poverty, alienation, frustration, blame towards the Welsh Government after 20 years in power – alongside those (and they are out there) with no natural identification with Wales and for whom the existence of any separate Welsh institutions (bar the WRU) is anathema.
The timid economic integration of Wales into neighbouring English regions through cross-border growth deals and partnerships suits these folk rather well. Plus, the day may come when ‘dark money’ – as in money that has been used to buy Facebook ads, as rumoured in the last General Election for Tory candidates in north Wales (I know it’s not illegal, but it seems unethical and not traceable) – is mobilised and devo-scepticism is weaponised by the tabloids and aggressive social media ads.
For these reasons, a more pluralist, more competitive politics should be welcomed, even if that brings into the debate those with whom we fundamentally disagree. If we raise the stakes, we can flush out the misinformation and the personal career interests that unashamedly drive some high-profile supporters of abolition.
And, anyway, one can’t argue for an end to our pathetic compromise of an electoral system and its replacement with a system more reflective of how people vote and then complain about for whom they’ve cast their votes. Success in pluralistic politics comes from smart alliances and attractive narratives that are credible and convincing.
I’m pretty confident that the half-baked ideas of most abolitionists can easily be deconstructed in a head-to-head that sticks to evidence not ideas, that uses facts and practicality rather than kite-flying and hair-brained schemes untested anywhere else in the world. It’ll need some serious journalism with the highest emphasis on scrutiny and challenge, but that’s not much to ask and, while we don’t have breadth and depth in our media, we do have some very strong, individual Welsh journos who could do the job.
Only a fool would be complacent about the popularity of devolution and there are real structural problems which deserve proper attention. Not surprisingly, a higher percentage of those physically distanced from Cardiff are opposed to the Senedd than those closer. The Senedd will decamp north this summer in an attempt to reconnect, but I’m not convinced there is much more that the parliament itself can actually do.
Effective policies, the benefits of which are felt on the ground, are what connect communities and that’s a case of ‘over to you Welsh Government’. And, in terms of bringing Wales together, the north has four government ministers and numerous high-profile opposition AMs. With respect, they are in Cardiff to fight for those communities and explain back the relevance of our national parliament to every corner of Wales.
Equally unsurprising is the generational gap. With parallels to the EU Referendum, young people are much more in favour of devolution, with only 14% of those aged 18-24 saying they’d vote to abolish it. Once 16 and 17 year olds start to vote, that figure will shrink further. The ‘devolution generation’, growing up in a seemingly more confident Wales see autonomy as the norm.
The Leave campaign proved the power and reach of emotion – as well as not letting facts get in the way of a good story. There’s a hugely compelling story to tell about Wales, our potential and why we need the power and political pluralism to shape our own future.
And there’s no time to waste. We should start drafting our new national story together – ideally in a non-partisan way – and then shout it from the rooftops in a language that people who don’t obsess with politics (that’s 99.5% of us) can easily relate to.
It should open by asking whether we really want Wales to become a nation out of sync with the rest of the world, represented in sport but not in politics.