20 @ 20: 20 Moments which Shook the Senedd

After looking at some of the achievements and failures of devolution, here’s a look at some of the memorable,  defining and surprising moments and turning points over the last 20 years.

20. Trish Law wins Blaenau Gwent (2006)

Back when AMs could still sit as an MP, Peter Law was one of the more outspoken members of the First Senedd, opposing the coalition between Labour and Lib Dems and eventually resigning from Labour in opposition to all-women shortlists. Following his death from a brain tumour in 2006, his wife – nursing assistant, Trish Law – was selected to run in the subsequent by-election for Blaenau Gwent People’s Voice.

In 2005, Peter had managed to overturn a thumping majority to take one of Labour’s safest Westminster seats. In the by-election, Trish Law managed to do the same thing in the Senedd and held the seat until she stood down in 2011, becoming one of the few authentically working-class AMs in the process. It was also ironic that – given the circumstances behind Peter Law’s resignation from Labour – her victory resulted in the Senedd becoming the first legislature in the world where the majority of its representatives were women.

19. Collapse of Rainbow Coalition talks (2007)

It’s unclear precisely how close Wales came to ousting Labour in 2007, but this is one of those “what if” scenarios that political anoraks will ponder for years to come….or probably not. Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives and Lib Dems managed to put together what was called the “All-Wales Accord”, which could’ve seen a referendum on implementing the Richard Commission recommendations, devolution of youth justice and universal childcare (pdf).

The coalition collapsed when the Lib Dem couldn’t agree to it, with fears over a nationalist First Minister and the impact going into coalition would have on their electoral prospects (heh heh). In the end, the One Wales Coalition between Labour and Plaid Cymru was formed and a watered down version of the All Wales Accord was delivered – including, crucially, a referendum on law-making powers in 2011.

18. Bethan Sayed’s (née Jenkins) drink-driving conviction (2012)

Being the youngest AM amongst a legislature predominantly made up of people in their 40s and 50s made Bethan stand out for a long time in more ways than one. She pioneered the use of social media in Welsh politics and has long been one of the most effective AMs when it comes to raising issues that are often neglected – and that’s why I’m including this.

There are obviously much easier ways to raise awareness of mental health, but you get a sense that – until the last few years – Bethan’s been held to a different standard than other AMs which has often seemed cruel. Even if she’s never been entirely allowed to live this down, this incident marked a gradual attitude shift in attitudes towards mental health by legislators after her peers rallied around her.

17. Anglesey Council taken over by the Welsh Government (2011)

This is the first and, to date, only time a local authority in Wales has been deemed to have become so dysfunctional that it had to be taken over by the government. After a long history of political infighting, corruption allegations and a damning series of reports which highlighted just how poorly the island was being run, Carl Sargeant sent in Commissioners to run Anglesey. They stayed for two years until a fresh set of elections in 2013 on new boundaries and multi-member wards – a year later than the rest of Wales. It turned out to be the right decision, with Anglesey slowly rising up the ranks of the best-performing councils.

16. The Curry Plot (2003)

Still reeling from the sudden “resignation” of Dafydd Wigley, Plaid Cymru turned to an unassuming country lawyer, Ieuan Wyn Jones, for leadership. Following a disastrous election in 2003, Ieuan lost the confidence of the Plaid Assembly group and resigned. This was supposedly orchestrated at a meeting in Cardiff over takeaways, where it was decided there should be a change in leadership – though the veracity of that story is up for debate.

In a dramatic twist, Ieuan had the last laugh. Not only was he returned as party leader by just 71 votes on a second ballot, he also lead Plaid into government in 2007 and (debatable) became the most successful leader the party’s ever had.

15. Leanne Wood ejected for “Mrs Windsor” quip (2004)

You’ve probably all heard of about Chaos Theory – that if a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world it causes a hurricane on the other side of the world. This seemingly innocuous incident gives the impression of doing that for Plaid Cymru.

Plaid has always had a problem in trying to be all things to everyone. When Leanne Wood was ejected for a minor bit of disrespect to the Queen, it revealed the growing faultline between the party’s more Raymond Williams-inspired radical left republican tendencies and the more gradualist, conservative cultural nationalism of an older generation of grandees that Dafydd Elis-Thomas, the then Presiding Officer, represented.

The animosity between the two would bubble for several years, culminating in Leanne Wood unexpectedly winning the leadership in 2012 and Dafydd leaving Plaid Cymru in October 2016 to (eventually) go into government as Deputy Minister for Culture. Old wounds are set to reopen in 2021 should Dafydd stand to retain his seat in Dwyfor Meirionnydd; it’s just a question now as to whether he’ll do so as an Independent or Labour.

14. Nick Bourne loses his seat (2011)

One of the leaders of the 1997 “No” campaign, Nick Bourne did a tremendous job in detoxifying the Conservative brand in Wales. He did this by adopting a soft patriotism which reconciled Britishness with Welshness and gradually won over the party hierarchy to the Senedd’s new role in the UK Constitution. In the end, he was a victim of his own party’s success. Following constituency gains in 2011, he lost his regional list seat and with it one of the architects of the Tory recovery in Wales – and one of their most effective AMs – was gone before his time because of a block on candidates standing on the regional lists and in constituencies at the same time in 2007 and 2011. It took until 2016 for double candidacy to be reinstated.

13. The Other Expenses Scandal (2008)

A year or so before a similar scandal rocked Westminister – and could well have played a role in rising populism during the 2010s – AMs were themselves caught making frivolous expenses claims: Alun Cairns and Nick Bourne’s iPods, Brian Gibbon’s British Legion wreath and numerous second home expenses for AMs who often lived within no more than 30-45 minutes travel of Cardiff.

The Assembly Commission got a grip on it pretty much straight away and within months all expenses returns had to be published on the Senedd’s website. It took Westminster ages to do the same thing.

12. Simon Thomas conviction for possessing child pornography (2018)

I didn’t want to bring this one up but there’s no doubt this is the most serious criminal offence ever committed by an AM (that we know of), and coming from someone who was widely respected and once a leadership candidate makes it all the more chilling. Nobody would’ve known and it came right out of the blue.

He’s somewhat fortunate this happened during a lazy period over the summer and amidst other distractions like Brexit. While he’ll have to live with what he’s done and what he’s thrown away – whilst rightfully seeking counselling – it’s up for debate whether the courts were too lenient. It’s just too depressing to think about really and my sympathy rests with the victims.

11. UKIP’s clown car arrives with a bang-bang-cough-splutter (2016)

While UKIP had long threatened to win seats in the Senedd prior to the 2016 election, the rise in populism, a late conversion to supporting devolution and a referendum on EU membership around the corner saw a surge in support that resulted in the party upending the apple cart and winning seven seats (when some polls predicted them winning as many as 10).

All of the seats were won on the regional lists, in part because of a collapse in the europhile Lib Dem vote. The party promised to shake up the cosy consensus in the Bay Bubble, but have fallen flat and cut the number of effective AMs in the process.

They’ve lowered the tone of debate, been torn apart by infighting and have not only re-adopted the policy of direct-rule from London but actively shifted to the far-right, courting assorted unsavoury characters and football hooligans along the way. They’ve turned out to be everything the electorate were warned they would be….and the chances are many of them will still be there in 2021.

10. The Pay Rise (2016)

AMs have enjoyed big pay rises in the past, but after years of austerity and wage suppression in the public sector, proposals for a £10,000-a-year pay rise in 2014 proved even more contentious than usual. The aim was to improve the overall calibre of AMs by lifting pay so it matches some of the best-qualified people in the private and public sectors – many AMs will have effectively taken a pay cut to take up the role, but that’s usually the exception rather than the rule.

There was a logic behind it, but looking at the Fifth Assembly it completely failed to match expectations. Committee chairs still earn a wedge, while it’s seen the likes of Gareth Bennett earn £64,000-a-year. The elephant in the room is that parties sometimes pick crap candidates and no change to the pay and expenses system will alter that. If the Senedd needs to expand in the near future then this issue has to be revisited and a sizable pay cut should be put on the table.

9. The E-Coli Inquiry (2005-2007)

An E-Coli outbreak in south Wales during autumn 2005 lead to more than 150 people being treated and the death of 5-year-old Mason Jones from Bargoed. The Senedd appointed Prof. Hugh Pennington to lead a full and comprehensive public inquiry which revealed a Bridgend-based meat supplier had fallen foul of food safety standards for years.

This inquiry could well have played a role in the eventual introduction of the Food Hygiene Ratings Act. It also showed that when there’s a public health crisis, Cardiff Bay is often quick to react – the actions taken during the 2013 Swansea Bay measles outbreak being another example of decisive leadership.

8. Alun Davies sacked (2014)

There’s a pattern emerging with Alun Davies. He gets given a government role, then after a year or two says or does something to annoy someone. Then he’s removed, moves to the backbenches where he becomes an outspoken “critical friend” of the government. Then at the first convenient window, he’s moved back into government to keep him inside the tent peeing out.

This time it was different after it was determined he broke the Ministerial Code by abusing his position to seek information about farm subsidies received by opposition AMs. It was deemed so serious it made UK headlines – which is a rarity for a Welsh political scandal.

Two years later he was back in government. Not long after that he was out again after controversial remarks on council budgets and is now “causing trouble” on the backbenches. Odds are he’ll be back in government before 2021, probably.

7. “Cheap Date” turns very expensive (2016)

In one of the most bizarre incidents of the last 20 years, the first version of the Public Health Bill was voted down by AMs in March 2016 after the then Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, made an ill-judged quip in a completely unrelated debate that Plaid Cymru were “a cheap date” when it came to drawing concessions. That clearly hit a bit too close to home, so Plaid decided to withdraw support for the Bill after months and months of negotiations and amendments.

Parties can vote however they want on a Bill, but they’re supposed to vote for whatever’s on the table with us – the people of Wales – first and forefront in their minds. However, this was a rare example of AMs treating the legislative process with contempt. A less contentious Public Health Act was passed a few years later.

6. Leighton Andrews loses the Rhondda (2016)

Having developed a reputation of being a keen reformer and a political heavyweight – maybe even a potential future Labour leadership candidate – Leighton Andrews was on the end of quite a humbling when Leanne Wood, boosted by her newfound UK profile, overturned a 6,700 vote majority to take Rhondda for Plaid Cymru for the first time since 1999.

It sent a clear signal that with the right person and campaign in place Plaid can compete on Labour’s turf, but it also sent a signal – amidst some middling results elsewhere – that Leanne Wood was perhaps becoming bigger than her party and her relative personal popularity was masking some serious problems within Plaid.

5. No Confidence Motion in Alun Michael (2000)

The First Senedd was marked by serious political instability. This wasn’t helped by a bubbling sense of resentment that “Tony Blair’s man in Wales” – Alun Michael – was all but parachuted into the position of First Secretary/Minister ahead of the less New Labour and more popular Rhodri Morgan.

Things came to a head when a motion of no confidence was tabled over a failure by Alun Michael’s government to secure match funding from the UK Government for EU structural funding (£1 of UK money for every £1 of EU funding) – which meant the match funding had to come from the much smaller Welsh budget. In the end, Alun jumped before he was pushed. Although Carwyn Jones has probably come close to being on the receiving end of this in recent years, it’s the only time a no-confidence motion has achieved the desired result in the Senedd.

4. Foot & Mouth Crisis (2001)

This was the first major crisis to affect Wales in which the public turned to Cardiff over London. It’s often overlooked now, but it’s important not to underestimate the devastating impact this had on the rural Welsh economy just as the Welsh red meat industry was recovering from BSE. It also crippled tourism, with large swathes of the countryside cordoned off and large pyres built to cope with an estimated million dead animals.

Questions remain over whether governments in London and Cardiff handled the crisis as well as they could have, but by making unpopular decisions it marked out the possible leadership credentials of future First Minister, Carwyn Jones – who was put in charge of responding to the crisis. A similar outbreak in 2007 was dealt with in a manner which prevented it from becoming nothing more than a minor regional incident.

3. The Steel Crisis (2016-2017)

After news that Tata Steel’s operations in the UK were haemorrhaging money, partly due to cheap Chinese steel flooding the European market and high energy costs, there was a very real possibility the Port Talbot steelworks would either close or be mothballed. While the reaction of the UK Government was slow, the Welsh Government and Senedd took the threat seriously, even going so far as recalling the Senedd just prior to the 2016 election.

Tata’s good working relationship with the Welsh Government seems to have paid off. While the situation has stabilised somewhat, elements of the crisis threaten to resurface due to Brexit and some of the emerging details of the proposed merger between Tata and ThyssenKrupp.

2. Wales votes to Leave the EU (2016)

I doubt I was the only person expecting a narrow Remain vote. At the time I said the result in Wales would be dependent on the votes along the M4 corridor, which were too close to call – if councils like Bridgend, Newport and Neath Port Talbot vote Leave, it would deliver a Leave. While there are clearly some in the Senedd who haven’t quite come to terms with the fact they lost (and others on both sides who had no idea what they would do in the event of a “Leave”) they had no choice but to manage the fallout with one arm behind their back and their shoelaces tied together.

By and large and against all odds they’ve done it. The Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru set out a clear Brexit position within about 6/7 months of the referendum, although the repetition of debates and numerous attempts to influence things over which AMs have absolutely no control has become very annoying very quickly. While the amount of legislative time Brexit has taken up – which could’ve been dedicated to stuff that actually matters to ordinary people – hasn’t paralysed the Senedd as such, it’s stretched its workload to unprecedented levels. Also, Brexit hasn’t only strained the Union but rendered the UK a global laughing stock….and it’s not anywhere near being over yet.

1. Death of Carl Sargeant (2017)

One common theme throughout the history of post-devolution Wales has been the mistaken belief that Welsh politics was friendlier, more pure, more consensual. That comforting illusion was forever shattered on November 7th 2017 with the suicide of former Communities Secretary, Carl Sargeant, who was sacked a few days earlier following undisclosed allegations of personal misconduct.

Something like this is unprecedented in most democracies, let alone a young one like Wales. The inquests and fallout brought into question the integrity of the First Minister, led to accusations of cover-ups and whitewashes, aired dirty laundry into how the Welsh Government and the shadowy network of special advisers and lobbyists work behind the scenes, as well as (perhaps overshadowing) the broader issues of harassment of women in public life and men’s mental health.

We won’t know the full official answers until all of the inquests and inquiries are completed, but you do get the sense that this has permanently changed something in Cardiff Bay. Carl Sargeant’s death wasn’t only a massive personal tragedy for everyone directly affected by it, but it marked an end to the “age of innocence” in Welsh politics and a bit of its heart and soul was lost with Carl. It’s got to be amongst its darkest ever chapters – not just during the devolution era.

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