Gove’s Welsh intervention highlights the contradictions of devolution
There are, in my experience, two broad categories of devolutionary. The first are the optimists, who believe that bringing power closer to the people will create a renaissance in responsive, effective governance free from the ‘dead hand’ of a remote political centre. Then there are the pessimists, who appear to view the whole process as a means of shoring up traditional politics and ring-fencing their power bases.
Examples of the latter are not hard to find – last week, the Prime Minister had to explain to Northern Irish voters that the government was cutting its grant to the Northern Ireland Assembly after that body refused to implement benefit reform – which led Conservative peer and former UUP leader Lord Trimble to call for the removal of Stormont’s welfare powers.
This week, education secretary Michael Gove and his opponents provided useful exemplars of each category after he made a sally into Welsh politics. Gove took to Wales Online to dabble in that popular Conservative pastime: comparing Welsh and English outcomes in education and healthcare.
He played all the favourites: listing comparative figures; quoting Welsh government ministers admitting their error; attacking the decision to abolish league tables and subsequent tumbling global rankings; and the recent problems plaguing Cardiff’s attempt to bring in a new GCSE (and the decision of Welsh private schools to ‘go Gove’). Having gathered this plentiful ammunition, turned his fire on Labour:
“Wales is an object lesson in what happens when you abandon reform. Ed Miliband recently told the Welsh Labour Conference that Wales’ Labour Government is ‘proving to the rest of the country the difference that Labour can make.’
“It’s certainly doing that on education. Thousands of children falling behind as result of rigid dogma and a refusal to reform – that’s the difference that Labour has made in Wales.”
Gove also takes the time in his article to set out his devolutionary credentials – he comes across as an enthusiastic decentraliser, whose attack is motivated by a desire to see devolution work (by having different jurisdictions competing with genuinely effective policies) rather than an old-style using Labour’s poor record to make the case against devolved government. Unlike Trimble, he does not argue for any transfer of power to the centre.
Not that you’d know that from the response of Huw Lewis, the devolved education minister whom WO offered one of their two rebuttal pieces (the other, from WO’s own education correspondent, is practically headlined ‘Well, England isn’t perfect either!”). Lewis accuses Gove of “indestructible colonial attitudes”, maintaining the Jones administration’s approach that treats an attack on their record as an attack on the Welsh nation itself.
The real threat to the Union, according to Lewis, is the ‘dark heart of the Conservative Party in England’ – despite this, Lewis can find no section of Gove’s article wherein he hankers for the re-establishment of a British education secretary, else he surely would have quoted it. Yet he highlights, quite conveniently for the purposes of comparison, the reactionary strand of devolution.
As this column and plenty of others have chronicled at length, Welsh Labour spent fifteen years using devolution to opt out of public service reform and roll back what they could. The results have been disastrous. Lewis does trot the standard “demographics are destiny” line favoured by Gove’s opponents, but rather undermines it by emphasizing his administrations own, belated reform efforts – if reform cannot overcome demographics, why is he bothering?
This line also ignores two critical facts: first, that free schools and academies have produced astonishing results in exactly the sort of schools and areas where received wisdom saw demographics as an excuse for bad schools; and second, that education reformers are not just comparing England and Wales in the present, and when you look over a longer timespan the devastating effects of Wales’ retreats from reform are readily apparent.
In truth, the most potent threat to the Union from devolution are the Spectator describes as the home nations “living separate lives under the same roof” – each cut off from the other, growing gradually unaware that they are citizens of a common country. Trying to exploit devolution to deepen divisions and de-legitimise your opponents, as both Lewis and hard-left separatist leader Leanne Wood did this week, only exacerbates that trend.
Comparative debate about the approaches taken by different devolved administrations is not just good for government, but a potent antidote to this fragmentation. Unionists on both sides of the House must be sure to keep it up.
Scottish nationalists suspect an establishment stich-up as Armed Forces Day centres on Scotland
The armed forces are amongst the most popular British institutions, so it’s no surprise that Armed Forces Day, a relatively new event held to honour our servicemen and women, finds plenty of support from one end of the land to the other. Events on or related to the event, including parades and flying shows, have been held in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The epicentre, however, was Stirling in Scotland, and that has raised some nationalist hackles. Of course you can find opponents of the Armed Forces anywhere – see the Green councillor from Brighton being asked to resign after tweeting that AFD had brought ‘hired killers’ onto the streets – but in Scotland the location and timing of the main event has led some elements of the separatist movement to suspect unionist skulduggery.
For example, is it coincidence that the biggest event was held on the same day as, and relatively close to, the major commemoration of the battle of Bannockburn? ‘Bannockburn Live’, which featured live re-enactors and was put together as part of the Scottish governments ‘year of homecoming’, was a famous Scottish military victory over England (even if all the commanders were French, the peasants were not) and nationalists hoped to use it to boost support for independence.
Yet it has been plagued by low ticket take-up. It did finally sell out on the day – after a last-minute surge in interest which took the organisers by surprise – but only after being reduced from three days to two and seeing the maximum number of tickets slashed from 45,000 to 20,000. At the time that the reductions were announced several members of the separatist campaign accused the Ministry of Defence of attempting to sabotage the Bannockburn commemoration.
On top of a spate of nationalist protests against the BBC, the in light of the stubborn poll lead enjoyed by ‘No’, the charges against Armed Forces Day fit into an apparently broader attempt by elements of the Yes campaign to construct an establishment bogeyman to blame for a bad result. It would make sense, too, wouldn’t it? After all, the armed forces are charged with the defence of the British state. Just like MI5.