John Broughton is a Tory activist in North Wales.
The 1997 referendum leading to the establishment of the Welsh Assembly was far from emphatic with only 25.2% of the electorate voting in favour, certainly not a mandate for such a major constitutional change. However the Assembly is now an established fact of Welsh life although almost invisible in North Wales.
Since it was set up, additional powers have been transferred to the Assembly without any further referendum or consent from the people of Wales. In 2006 the Assembly was given the ability to pass Welsh laws relating to any of the 20 devolved areas, but only subject to their scrutiny in advance by the Secretary of State for Wales, the House of Commons, and House of Lords.
A referendum is to be held on 3rd March to decide if the Assembly can take power to make laws applicable to Wales only in the 20 devolved areas without any external or second chamber scrutiny. Given that a new Assembly is to be elected on 5th May it is difficult to understand why the referendum is not contemporaneous. Holding the two polls on the same day would have increased turnout and saved the taxpayer £5-8 million.
The motive force behind this further devolution is Plaid who are envious of the progress their nationalist friends in Scotland have made toward total devolution and independence. However Plaid fails to recognize the geographic differences to Scotland where our economy and public services are very much east-west and tied to major towns and cities in England – Liverpool, Manchester, Chester, Shrewsbury, Birmingham, Bristol and London.
The overwhelming majority of Conservative activists believe:
(i) The Welsh Assembly is currently not about proper devolution but separatism and centralisation. Twenty areas have been devolved from Westminster to Cardiff. Since inception the Assembly has sucked up many local powers from North Wales (and local authorities generally), thus denying local decision-making and accountability.
(ii) The Assembly has created barriers and disparity in healthcare and other public services which once did not exist. We pay the same taxes as the rest of the UK yet wait longer for hospital treatment in specialist hospitals in the North West!
(iii) Isolating Wales simply makes no sense with respect to geographical, cultural, transport and socio-economic links. Such links arguably bind North Wales more strongly to the North West of England than to South Wales. Almost always, the problems and opportunities in Wales are little different to those in England, which is after all composed of vastly differing communities itself. There is little if any justification for the extra bureaucracy involved in the obsession with "being different".
(iv) There is a worrying lack of effective scrutiny within the Welsh Assembly, meaning that any ability to pass laws is of great concern. Unlike Westminster, the Assembly has no second chamber, no effective media scrutiny, and many have limited confidence that existing Assembly Members are up to the job of passing effective legislation. There is disinterest and confusion about what the Assembly is and as such it is so far failing to provide an effective form of democracy.
(v) The existence of the Assembly has weakened the role of Welsh MPs and threatens to reduce Wales' influence on British and foreign affairs.
(vi) North Wales always stands to lose out in an Assembly dominated by South Wales.
(vii) The Assembly costs hundreds of millions of pounds per year to run – more powers will inevitably involve even greater costs.
Nothing is more fundamental to the future of Wales than the state of our economy: it shapes the whole quality of life for our people. Under devolution we have what Professor Kevin Morgan has called its ‘dirty little secret’: a dismal economic record.
The wealth gap between Wales and the other UK nations has worsened in the last decade among the four UK countries. Our manufacturing base has continued to decline. We are the least competitive of the UK nations. As has been continually stated by economic experts, our private sector is far too small.
The Bay political parties appear to have agreed a pact of silence over discussing the Holtham tax-varying ideas. So we will hear little or nothing before the referendum; then there’ll be a discussion behind closed doors soon after. Jane Hutt, Minister for Business and the Budget, has already pencilled in a meeting with Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury – but that Holtham debate is not to include the people of Wales during the referendum who must be sold the line that there really is nothing to worry about. Is this acceptable behaviour by the Assembly ‘Yes’ coalition in the midst of a referendum debate about the constitutional future of Wales?
But the slippery slope has more than tax-varying powers. We have been hearing for some time a new agenda on increasing Assembly responsibilities once direct law-making power is secured: first on that shopping list is the transfer of justice and policing to Cardiff Bay from Whitehall.
The new economic powers would not need a referendum. Plaid has already shaped the new Economic Renewal Programme. Plaid is step-by-step moving public opinion to the idea of acquiring strategic macro-economic powers, a critical element in their long-term nationalist economic strategy.
When questioned, Plaid spokesmen always refer to devolution as a process. That is code for devolution-to-independence. They have observed the way in which the EU adds power little by little and uses any crisis as reason for more integration except, in this case, it is separation.
In Wales, we have the unprecedented spectacle in any modern democracy of a whole political class closing ranks behind one side in a referendum on the acquisition of far-reaching direct law-making power.
To make this absolutely crystal clear EVERY Conservative AM is backing this power grab although each and every one knows that the Assembly’s track record is one of centralisation and failure regarding the economy, education and health services plus ever more remoteness from the people they profess to serve.
Conservative activists take entirely the opposite stance (as do many Labour activists) and we are campaigning vigorously for a NO vote. We have combined with True Wales, a cross party grass roots group, to campaign for a NO vote. True Wales can be contacted at http://www.truewales.org.uk/en/home.html.
Alternatively I can be contacted via Twitter @grahnat.
We would like anybody reading this article with an interest in Welsh democracy to lobby their AMs for a NO vote.