Laura Anne Jones is a Member of the Welsh Parliament for South Wales East
Eisenhower famously warned of the dangers of the extremes in an argument on both left and right. His comments related to social security and employment protections for workers rather than the constitutional intricacies of Welsh devolution, but it remains a point well made about the appeal of movements on the political fringes in difficult times.
We now know officially that we are in a recession of unprecedented severity. If we thought the 2008 crash cast a long shadow in terms of economic repair and austerity, the economic recovery from Covid-19 is on another level. Past global recessions have resulted in a rise in popularism on both the left and right, seeking to take advantage of a crisis, comparing luscious green grass to the malaise of the status quo.
The latest Welsh Barometer Poll registered a rise in support for the abolition of the Assembly by five per cent to 22 per cent and a rise of two per cent in support for independence to 16 per cent – still one of the least popular options behind an enhanced Senedd (20 per cent) and the most popular outcome, the status quo at 24 per cent.
The Coronavirus pandemic has put relations between the UK and devolved governments under strain, but also exposed the desire of devolved administrations to assert their authority by taking a different approach or timeline. Even when the devolved administrations make the same decisions, they have to be given a different name. Just like England, Wales has bubbles, but they can’t be called bubbles and instead are known as extended households.
The scale of the resulting economic devastation from Coronavirus remains unclear, but polls are already detecting movement towards the extremes in the constitutional argument – abolition and independence.
I don’t believe either option will ever win the support of a majority of the electorate. In fact, polling consistently demonstrates strong support for devolution but that support is not blind or unquestioning. While there have been positive changes delivered in the past 20 years such as presumed consent, the carrier bag levy, free bus passes and the 50:50 gender balance in 2003 in which I was proud to play a part.
However, in 20 years, the public would rightly expect more. Welsh Government Ministers have accepted that they failed to deliver what the public really want which is a more dynamic and prosperous economy and higher standards in public services. Successive ministers have conceded they ‘took their eye off the ball’ on education for at least the first decade and 20 years into devolution admitted they ‘don’t really know what they’re doing on the economy’.
While these are Labour’s failings and not those of the institution, it does make it harder to make the case to maintain the current devolution settlement. The institution is still young and must continually prove its relevance and the difference it can make to people’s lives. Paul Davies put it very succinctly in his speech to the Welsh Conservative Party conference earlier this year:
“We have the powers, we have the funding, it’s time to stop marking the pitch and actually start playing the game.”
While I make the case for the preservation of devolution in Wales, it’s a fact that I voted No in the referendum on further powers in 2011. I hadn’t been heavily involved in the referendum – one of the very few public ballots that I hadn’t put my heart into in the last 25 years. My firstborn was just turning one, but more than that the referendum just didn’t inspire me. The referendum was an obscure choice between two different means of primary law-making for the National Assembly, with both outcomes, Yes and No, resulting in more powers being devolved to Cardiff Bay. It was the ultimate establishment stitch-up. A far more meaningful referendum would have been on whether the Assembly gained tax-varying powers – it was a sufficiently important distinction for Scotland to have a referendum question on it. Except the establishment knew such a referendum would not be won, so instead the people of Wales were given an obscure question with two choices, which eventually would have the same outcome – more powers for the Assembly.
Now, albeit without a mandate from the people, the Welsh Parliament does have quite significant tax-varying powers. These are additional levers that can be used to make the Welsh economy more competitive and dynamic – as long as they’re pulled the right way. With primary law-making powers across a wide range of policy areas and key taxation levers, there’s now very little scope to blame Westminster governments for not giving the Welsh Government enough money. The levers and the accountability lie here. There are no more excuses for a failure to deliver.
Last month saw Plaid Cymru initiate the first-ever debate in the Senedd about Welsh independence, although it feels like Welsh politics has debated little other than the constitution in the last 20 years. While I was returned to the Senedd in the most tragic of circumstances, I want to make a contribution in policy areas that are important to the people I represent – the NHS, schools, the environment, agriculture and poverty – and I’m afraid the constitution ranks pretty lowly. I hope the current devolution settlement can bed in over the next five years so Senedd Members can focus on how to use those powers to improve the economy and public services rather than demanding more. I don’t want to see any more powers devolved to Cardiff Bay in the next few years, not because of any opposition to devolution, but because devolution needs to mature and make better use of the considerable tools at its disposal. We need to end our obsession with constitutional tinkering and stop using the constitution as an excuse for failure and mediocrity.
I know Ron Davies described devolution as a process not an event, but it’s a process which sometimes feels never-ending and which consumes so much time and energy, there’s little left for the things that really matter, like schools, hospitals and the economy.
There is a very real risk that the third decade of devolution could be consumed by more constitutional debates and detract attention away from the monumental task of making Wales a wealthier nation – something the first two decades of devolution have completely failed to achieve.
I passionately want to see that healthier, wealthier and more aspirational nation. I believe we can only achieve those goals with change – and Wales desperately needs radical change. A Welsh Conservative Government led by Paul Davies could deliver that change – a revolution in devolution, transforming government in Wales as opposed to five more years of the same. But whoever is in power from 2021, the opportunities for real change in our society can only be secured if depart from the constant constitutional tinkering. Now is not the time to lurch in the direction of either extreme, be it independence or abolition. Now is the time to steady the ship and embark on more ambitious destinations. Because that’s our best chance at securing change.