Devolution in retrospect

Extract from Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012).

An extract from the ending of my book, written in early 2011. It’s a bit optimistic in terms of whether arguments over what Wales is have really disappeared but in today’s social media world small things are amplified giving a false impression of their frequency and significance. The basic argument still holds good I think. Devolution is a product and signal of a change in Welsh identity.

In such an outward-looking context, the National Assembly for Wales (NAW) was always going to struggle to engage and involve the Welsh people, a majority of whom chose to not even vote in its elections.  Much of Welsh politics thus resembled a private game, carried on in corridors and on websites inhabited and read by a few, overlooked even by the mass of Wales’ own media.  Post-devolution, most people’s lives in Wales simply carried on much as before.  The NAW existed on the peripheries of their vision, coming into focus only at certain times, such as when their son or daughter went off to university or when an election leaflet dropped through their letterbox, although even then it might go straight in the bin.

Before the advent of devolution, Ron Davies, its key architect, had argued that it would ‘only succeed if it can deliver a better quality of life and higher standards of living’. He was wrong.  For all the limited impacts of its policies and the general apathy that surrounded its workings, with astonishing speed devolution became an accepted part of Wales and a symbol of Welsh nationhood, one that stepped into void left by the disappearance of older symbols like coal and religion.

Moreover, the popular legitimacy that the NAW gained was remarkable when set in the context of post-war history.  Gone were the old arguments over what Wales meant or whether the language mattered or even whether Wales could enjoy a modicum of self-government and still survive.  Some of this may have been at the expense of Wales’s cultural uniqueness but it was to the benefit of Wales’s nationhood and more of the Welsh people felt Welsher than ever before.

But that did not mean the nation meant the same thing to everyone.  It was still a very personalized identity, based on individual experiences and outlooks, but it was much easier to feel part of a nation that was not too closely defined or indeed defined at all.  The Welsh nation was still part of a wider British and global civic and cultural space, but it was a nation in its own right too.

In the twenty-first century that might seem a rather odd thing to say but set against the previous seventy years of history Wales’s survival could not always be taken for granted.  Moreover, Wales now had a political function and a political meaning as the creation of the NAW gave everyone in Wales a democratic citizenship.  They might not have noticed or have even cared but it happened all the same.

 

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Memories of Wales says Yes 1997

On 18 September 1997, the Welsh electorate narrowly voted ‘Yes’ on the question: “Do you agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly as proposed by the Government?” The turnout was 50.1%. The Yes majority was 6,721.

At the time, I was a student in Cardiff and very excited by the prospect of devolution.  It was a chance to recognise Welsh nationality and form a different kind of democracy after 18 years of Conservative government.  Like the election of Tony Blair earlier in the year, it seemed to offer a new beginning and I took the opportunity to speak to as many people as possible about it.

My overriding memory of the time, however, is the indifference of most people I knew. Some were clearly in the Yes camp, especially if they spoke Welsh and/or supported Plaid Cymru.  My friends who had voted Labour a few months before were far less enthusiastic. Indeed, many of those who were English seemed to regard the issue as nothing really to do with them.  Some actually stated it should be a decision for those who were Welsh rather than living in Wales.

Even amongst those who were Welsh, there was sometimes a sense that somehow this was a vote on whether Wales’s future should be in the UK. One friend from a Valleys town was distrustful of my arguments because she said I was too “into the Welsh thing”. Others seemed to feel it was too soon after the election of a new government to make such a decision. The Tories had been in power nearly all our lives and some people seemed to want to see how government by New Labour would pan out first.  Few such people probably voted ‘No’ but not many voted ‘Yes’ either.

There may have been little enthusiasm but there was also little active hostility. Only one person told me he was voting No because he wanted less government, not more.

Looking back, I can’t remember why I did not get involved in the Yes campaign. Perhaps I did not know how at a time when the internet was in its infancy. I did get a Yes poster from somewhere and put it up in the window. It was the only poster on our street.

Despite my numerous conversations, it never occurred to me that the Yes campaign might not win.  Just as during the EU referendum, I was assuming that common sense would win out, despite the conversations I was having with people who thought otherwise.  As results night progressed, and it looked like No would win, I got depressed, as much with my own misreading of the situation as with the situation itself.

When Carmarthen, the last county to declare, swung the result, I was ecstatic. I felt I should go onto the streets to celebrate this momentous occasion of national importance.  But I knew no one else would be there. I did open the door but it was raining.

Instead, I watched television pictures of a party somewhere. In the background, I noticed the woman who lived next door. I had never spoken to her and felt a moment of guilt about the lack of community on our street. I wondered why she had not put up a poster in her window.

The next day, no one seemed that excited. A friend who I had persuaded to vote Yes told me she had meant to but the rain had deterred her. I’d like to think the margin would have been better had the sun been out but that would another delusion.  1997 changed Wales forever but it did so on the back of little widespread enthusiasm.

What next? Some back of the envelope thinking

It was nowhere near as close as many hoped or feared but 1.6m UK citizens still said they wanted out. The prime minister has reaffirmed his commitment to the vague devo-max promises made late in the day.  Fearing the rise of UKIP, his backbenchers insist that the ‘English question’ needs sorting too. Despite the uncertainties, constitutional change is coming.

Scotland will sort itself out I’m sure. The backlash would be too great if they did not get something acceptable to the Scottish government.  The Tory  backbenchers would no doubt like to see public spending in Scotland brought into line with England but the PM seems to have committed to the Barnett formula that allows higher Scottish spending, while oil revenues offer him a justification to defend that.

The problem with committing to Barnett is that it hurts Wales. Unlike Scotland, Wales gets more from the public purse than it pays in (maybe £12billion a year) but  if its block grant was funded on the same basis as Scotland it would get another £300m a year.  (I’m simplifying but that’s basically the case).

The UK government could of course just change the Barnett formula so Wales and Scotland were treated equitably. However, a greater ‘hand out’ to Wales will not go down well with the backbenchers or the English nationalist party that masquerades as UKIP. It might also mean less cash for Scotland. A future Labour UK government does appear to have promised some sort of Barnett reform  but the details are vague and, anyway, they’re not in power.

Cameron has to face up to solving the Barnett issue because without doing that he can’t deliver “English votes for English issues”. At the moment, the level of public spending in England helps determine the size of the Welsh and Scottish block grants. Thus any vote on, say, English education that involves a change to spending levels is not an England-only issue because it affects the Welsh and Scottish budgets.  Welsh and Scottish MPs will continue to be justified in voting on English issues for as long as Barnett continues.

Thus any constitutional reform of England has to first address how Wales and Scotland are funded.  But it is surely not impossible to come up with a new formula that calculates the Welsh and Scottish block grants based on an equitable assessment of their needs (i.e. the extent of deprivation there and the cost of delivering services).

Once you have a new formula there is nothing to stop a federal parliamentary system for the UK, the ‘home rule for all’ option. Here the Commons becomes the English Parliament and the parliaments of all four nations have fiscal and domestic responsibilities. The Lords, meanwhile, is replaced with a UK-wide new elected chamber that deals with defence and other UK-wide issues. England has a first minister. The UK has a prime minister. They might belong to different parties.

There might need to be some policy alignments between the nations or a retention of some UK-wide domestic issues.  For example, significantly different levels of unemployment benefit and state pensions could lead to some awkward population movements.  But you could leave welfare payments (except housing benefit which is ultimately a local issue) at a UK level.

Most importantly, a federal UK could only work if there was some form of wealth redistribution between the nations. This happens within the EU and would be the cost of retaining some form of political unity and collective safety. In essence what would happen is that Wales and Northern Ireland, using whatever replaced Barnett, would get a subsidy from England, plugging the hole in their finances. If they wanted to spend beyond that they would have to use their tax and borrowing powers.

UKIP would moan but surely would not be in an electoral position to do much about it now the England question is solved.  (The EU issue would still be there but I have enough faith in the English electorate to vote to stay in any European referendum .) Labour would lose some influence in England but not in the UK. They won’t like that but democracy means it is unfair for them to govern England unless they can get a majority there. The Tories would be happy because they  had saved the union, increased their influence in England and hurt UKIP.  National identity in the four nations would be recognized.

The biggest question mark would be whether the English electorate would accept the subsidy of Wales and Northern Ireland.  But that already exists and polls say they want to keep the union and believe in social justice. This is the cost.

I’m sure the devil is in the detail but I’ve put the same level of thought into this as the back of the envelope vows made by the UK parties just before the referendum.

A personal (and Welsh) view of the referendum

If Scotland votes Yes my wife would be entitled to a new passport. Although it’s two decades since she’s lived there, I suspect she’d take one and I would be married to a foreign citizen. A trip to see her family would still be a long way but would now involve crossing an international boundary.

In this small way my life would change but, less obviously and far more substantively, other things would happen too. The political system that governs my country and the resources at its disposal will change. In some indirect but important fashion this will influence my health care, my job, my commute and my kids’ education.

But I don’t know how things will change and whether they will for better or worse.  The UK economy might plummet at the hands of international monetary forces. But it probably won’t. Wales should get to renegotiate the Barnett formula that has underfunded its public services for more than three decades. But that will be the low on the priorities of a London government trying to figure out how to disentangle two nations that have been one state for more than 300 years.

Indeed, amidst the political fallout and bickering, it may be that Wales and its needs doesn’t get heard at all. It would be nice to think that the London government suddenly gave Wales and Northern Ireland more attention and more resources in order to keep us in the family but I suspect that won’t happen because too much of the English electorate doesn’t care about having us.

My gut instinct is that Scottish independence will leave Wales worse off but I don’t know that. Nor does anyone else and the certainty with which some Welsh nationalists are declaring a Yes vote will be good for us is no more than a hopeful guess.  It’s not that I fear the economy being damaged; it’s more I fear Welsh politicians spending the next two decades gazing at their constitutional navals rather than working at fixing the inequalities and poverty on their doorsteps.

That should leave me wanting a No vote but the speed with which the Westminster elite is starting to wake up to the consequences of its introspection and London-centricism is far too welcome to want it to go away. Indeed, it’s actually funny seeing panic setting in amongst politicians who have been too smug for their own and our good. A Yes vote would give them a kicking they would never be the same again after.

I suspect it’s such feelings that are driving the Scottish Yes vote forward. The arguments on the economics of it all are so complex and so uncertain that neither side can actually win that fight. As long as the No camp keep on patronising the Scots and insulting their sense of nationhood (“we’re too wee to stand alone…”) then people will keep switching to the Yes side. They know it’s an economic risk but there’s enough sense in the Yes arguments to make it worth taking, especially when it means sticking two fingers up to a political elite that hasn’t cared much for years what they think.

These are interesting times as the saying goes. They will become even more interesting if Scotland votes Yes. If they do, I hope it works out for them. I hope even more it works out for Wales. But I suspect what’s good for Scotland, won’t be good for us.

There’s decentralisation for you!

London is more get-at-able than Cardiff for us in North Wales. It is, therefore, with interest that we read of the new Secretary of State for Wales, Mr. James Griffiths, establishing himself a Welsh Office in Whitehall.

Half a dozen civil servants have already gone up from the Old Office at Cardiff (there’s decentralisation for you!) and reinforcements are expected at Paddington hourly.

Will Wales, North or South, benefit as a result? Certainly the experience of Scotland under the Scottish Office would not lead one to think so. In Cabinet, Scottish business always tended to be taken after the affairs of England and Wales were disposed of.

This was even though the Secretary of State for Scotland had statutory powers which Mr. Griffiths does not possess. Mr. Griffiths, in fact, has neither the power nor, now, the backing of a substantial Department, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. He is a lone voice, and one can only hope for the best.

Editorial in the Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald and North Wales Observer, 23 October 1964