20 @ 20: The Next 20 Years of Welsh Devolution

This final article marking devolution’s 20 anniversary considers the future. While I have a terrible track record for making predictions down the years, I’ve also developed a habit of being right for the wrong reasons in some cases.

What are the biggest challenges facing the main parties over the next 20 years?

If I could massively oversimplify the biggest issues facing the three main parties in Wales, what would that look like?

Labour: Talent & Principles

Labour in Wales is a staid establishment party so used to winning they barely seem put in the effort anymore. There’s no real buzz about them. Their representatives at all levels can be hit-and-miss; some are excellent, some are there because of seniority or because they tick a box. Policies are usually pretty dull and occasionally adopt paternalistic managerialism, being micromanaged and consulted upon until the point nobody cares anymore. It seems the party is often geared to win elections and not much else.

I can completely understand that it’s nigh on impossible to get excited about 95%+ of what happens in the Senedd, while Brexit has created a situation where some things Labour would’ve liked to have done have been put on the backburner. But generating excitement is precisely how they’ll secure their long-term future – by not being afraid to be radical, not being afraid to step out of line with “the British way of doing things”, nor compromising on their core principles which are often ignored for the sake of political expediency (and because they don’t feel under threat – if you want an example, their reluctance to outright ban public sector zero hour contracts despite overwhelming pressure to do so). Unless they continually re-invent themselves and become more self-critical – something Eluned Morgan hinted at during 2018’s leadership race – they’ll eventually lose their position and will find it a real struggle to get it back, as Labour in Scotland has found to their cost.

Conservatives: The Class Ceiling

The Tories are stuck in a trap of occasionally being a friend to Wales (they’ve often been as big a champion of the Welsh language as Plaid when forced to and have at least expanded the Senedd’s powers), but then undoing it by other actions which display an outright contempt for us. That perfectly sums up their constituency of support in Wales – the Anglo-Welsh establishment, the wealthier parts of the farming industry, the suburban middle classes, people who think they’re middle class and people who deep down genuinely think they’re better than the rest of us (Audi drivers and alike).

On an individual level in the Senedd, they count amongst themselves some of the more effective opposition AMs. They’ll occasionally hit the right buttons in a local election somewhere outside their bubble of support, but for a sizable and largely immovable chunk of people in Wales, a Tory remains something nasty you step in, while Margaret Thatcher has become something of a Cromwellian figure of loathing even amongst people who aren’t old enough to have lived under her premiership. They’ll never come out top in a national election in Wales until they solve that problem, but they’ve never seemed keen to do so and are quite happy to take the 25-30% of support they can guarantee instead of being a little more ambitious and a little more Welsh in doing so. They are, dare I say it, too conservative. If they want to win in the longer-term, they actually need to take votes from Plaid and the Lib Dems, not just Labour and UKIP/Brexit Party.

Plaid Cymru: Accept you actually have weaknesses and work on them

When it comes to Plaid, my rule is to never believe the hype on social media and look at what they actually achieve, not what they tell you they’ve achieved. In many respects their problem is the exact opposite of Labour; they clearly have the talent, often aren’t afraid to be radical and generally stick to their principles (and actually have some). Their problem has been reconciling that with a package that’s attractive to the electorate; each electoral cycle they seem to have one policy that’s so “out there” it undoes all of the good work elsewhere. If you only got information from the Twitter echo chamber, you would think they’re the natural party of government in Wales when devolution has delivered (on objective measures) very little success. At times it’s felt as though they’re living on a different planet to the rest of us or trying to live out a political drama where they’re always the star, meaning they’ll ignore messages they don’t like.

The elephant in the room is, of course, that (in the south) they’re still seen as a party for Welsh-speakers. Their vote share (in the south) often reflects the proportion of adult Welsh-speakers in any given constituency (usually single or low double figures)….except on those rare occasions when they have a very good campaigning candidate with a big personality and strong roots who fully understands local issues. That brings with it a whole host of other problems, as another thing which seems to affect Plaid more than other parties is individuals becoming bigger than the party as a whole, leading to inflated self-esteem, inconsistent policies and groupthink; that’s when they start making mistakes.

Will Wales get any additional powers?

I’m not sure when the Thomas Commission is due to report back (it did eventually), but I suspect the devolution of criminal justice (policing, prisons, probation, courts) to Wales at some point is likely – it’s a question of how and over what length of time.

Mark Drakeford appears to prefer a gradual bit-by-bit devolution, starting with youth justice and probation and working up from there. The Senedd has already indicated its support for devolution of policing and has long argued for a Welsh legal jurisdiction – devolving policing in particular should be relatively straightforward. You would also assume that Police & Crime Commissioners will be the first thing to go if policing powers were devolved having been introduced against the Senedd’s wishes.

The biggest sticking point is that it would be highly dependent on Westminster, who have long taken a piecemeal “We’ll give you powers of X as long as you don’t get these associated powers over Y” approach to Welsh devolution as we carry little weight when it comes to bargaining and we have a dominant Labour party that seems reluctant to take on additional responsibilities. I suspect a majority of Welsh MPs oppose devolving criminal justice outright (because criminal justice is a big part of their post-devolution role) and only Plaid MPs will show any real enthusiasm.

I’d be pleasantly surprised if criminal justice or any single part of it were devolved before 2026.

As for other policy areas, there’ll continue to be calls for some measure of parity with Scotland – particularly greater control of Welsh natural resources, administration of welfare and expanded taxation powers. By the end of the next twenty year period, we’ll probably start to feel the full effects of climate change and I’d expect the environment portfolio will become as important in the Senedd as health, education and the economy. The distant future is more likely to look like The Expanse than Star Trek.

I don’t think Westminster will ever allow broadcasting to be devolved – to Wales or Scotland. Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Welsh Government were given the “opportunity” to provide direct grant funding to S4C in a similar way to DCMS -once DCMS funding ends (by 2022) – while devolution of Welsh-language broadcasting is perhaps more likely and fits into the UK’s aforementioned piecemeal, “We’ll give you powers of X as long as you don’t get these associated powers over Y” approach. Whether Wales ends up with our own English-language channel (like BBC Scotland) probably depends on BBC Scotland’s success and whether lessons have been learnt from BBC 2W; I wouldn’t get my hopes up.

As for whether any of that will require another Wales Act and another Richard or Silk-style Commission I honestly don’t know. It may also be dependent on the Senedd increasing in size as things are stretched to breaking point in terms of scrutiny as it is, which leads nicely into….

Will the Assembly expand?

Yes, but I believe it’ll happen independently of changes to the electoral system.

Labour is unlikely to look favourably on any change to a wholly proportional system (like single transferable vote/STV) because the current system works well enough for them and there’s no reason for them to risk any future nasty surprises. The Conservatives don’t seem entirely on board with the idea either and without the required two-thirds Senedd majority in place, changing the electoral system can’t happen.

Opposition to changing the electoral system doesn’t necessarily translate into opposition to increasing the number of AMs. Where there probably is broad agreement across the big three parties is that there’s a need for more AMs to foster additional expertise through committee work and widen the pool for scrutiny of the government.

It’ll probably increase to anything between 70-80 AMs and my guess is – barring a compromise on electoral system reform – it’ll be done either by adding additional members to the existing regional lists or by creating new regions (perhaps eight based around the 1974 counties) each electing 4-5AMs each. That could result in more Labour AMs being elected on the lists, but could also open the door for a Lib Dem comeback and maybe even enable the election of the first Green and Abolish the Assembly AMs. If there’s agreement on this by autumn 2019 it could happen possibly as early as 2021, though it would have to be properly budgeted for and I think 2026/Seventh Senedd is more realistic.

Another question is whether an increase in the number of AMs will be tied to a decrease in the number of MPs?

Proposed Westminster boundary changes appear to have been shelved are back on the table as of 2020 though for as long as Wales and England share a judicial system, Wales can justify being over-represented at Westminster. Devolving criminal justice might be the catalyst for a Westminster boundary review and a subsequent justification for increasing the number of AMs that way (AMs being “cheaper” than MPs).

What might happen elsewhere?

There’ll be some form of Brexit agreement with the EU (which won’t satisfy anyone) – Brexit will probably turn out to be one of the stupidest decisions ever made, but the UK should eventually recover economically, if not politically and in terms of global reputation. Despite all that’s happened since the start of 2019, I’d be very surprised if there wasn’t some way forward agreed before the new Brexit date in October 2019 – whether that’s via a preferential vote amongst MPs, a second referendum (the chances of which have increased in the last few weeks) or new UK general election. Should there be a second referendum it ought to be a preferential vote with everything except No Deal and Remain on the ballot – that way the 2016 result is upheld without the UK walking off a cliff.

My preference to breaking the deadlock is a temporary “detached membership” using EEA rules if possible, followed in the longer term by the creation of a UK-EU trade organisation with its own court, migration rules, Council of Ministers etc. with the devolved administrations and UK overseas territories like Gibraltar as full members (futureproofing our trading relationship re. independence). That’s probably too sensible though. We can always rejoin the EU in a generation or two, of course – but that’s how long it’ll take if there’s no immediate second referendum with Remain on the ballot.

At least one other EU member state will try to leave – Judging by what’s happened in the UK, the right ingredients for an EU withdrawal are: weak leadership; a big inter-regional divide/over-centralisation; the electoral success of a populist right-wing nationalist party; EU rulings or directives being seen as a threat to a particular part of a member state’s identity or sovereignty; not being a member of the eurozone; distrust of the Germans. Based on that, my money would be on Hungary, Poland, Sweden or Denmark trying to leave at some point or coming close to doing so.

EU expansion will be at a slower pace with further economic and political integration between a select number of current members – Whether the UK remained in the EU or not a “two-speed Europe” was a given, with a periphery of nations wanting a purely trading relationship with Europe and others who would prefer a deeper relations (such as the creation of a pan-European military or a full fiscal union) – a fully federal or confederal Europe is nothing but a fantasy. Based on their experiences since 2004, Brussels will be more reluctant to let new members join the club and there won’t be much of a clamour to join either. Iceland has frozen the accession process, Norway and Switzerland don’t want to join, it’s too soon for North Macedonia, Ukraine and Albania; Turkey will probably never be allowed to join due to human rights concerns and the only two serious candidates – Serbia and Montenegro – have their own issues to sort out.

English nationalism will rise along with calls for some form of devolution in England – Both of these are already happening to a certain extent. The former via the new all-singing-all-dancing pseudo-fascist UKIP, the latter in the form of directly-elected mayors and city regions. I fully expect an “English Parliament” to be put on the table at some point in the next few election cycles. I actually think the catalyst for this will be the death of Elizabeth II  which, however ghoulish it sounds, is (almost) certainly going to happen within the next 20 years. She embodies the last embers of the old unifying British (as opposed to English) hegemony and her death could symbolically do to the UK what Tito’s death did in the former Yugoslavia.

If it’s done well, it could be a 300-400 member institution with the same powers as the Scottish Parliament (and a subsequent similar arrangement for Wales), a mixed-member electoral system and based somewhere centrally and easily accessible from as much of England as possible but outside the usual metropolitan candidates like Manchester (somewhere like Nottingham). If it’s done badly, it’ll end up as English MPs double-jobbing, with the House of Commons being an English Parliament one day, an EnglandandWales Parliament another day and a UK Parliament another day. Based on UK constitutional precedent it’ll probably be the latter scenario.

There’ll almost certainly be another Scottish independence referendum (but probably not before 2021) – Nicola Sturgeon recently said she intends to seek to hold a second referendum in the current Scottish parliamentary term, but saying something and making it a reality are very different bedfellows. The timescales to enable that are likely to be too tight to be realistic in my opinion, unless it turns out to be some form of unofficial consultative referendum without the prerequisite permissions from London (known as a Section 30 Order), which is playing with fire.

There’s no real evidence yet of a big shift in attitudes towards independence, though Brexit certainly qualifies as a big enough change in circumstances to warrant another vote. It’s far too early to predict the result second time around, but I would expect a closer result than 2014 because one of Better Together’s biggest campaign messages (that remaining in the UK would protect Scottish EU membership) has been destroyed and many of their other arguments have fallen apart too. Independence is certainly there for the taking if the Scots want it.

Sinn Fein will gradually tip the balance in their favour in Northern Ireland, but that doesn’t mean a United Ireland will happen – Demographically, Northern Ireland is gradually shifting towards a Catholic majority but it’s too simplistic to say it would in itself lead to greater support for a United Ireland, as being Catholic doesn’t universally go hand-in-hand with Irish republicanism. It may actually be mundane politics, economics and social attitudes which would or wouldn’t lead to a United Ireland, not nationality or religion.

Sinn Fein has, for the most part, come across as embracing the spirit of the peace process and Good Friday Agreement more so than the DUP, while the Republic of Ireland is now a very different place to the one during Eamon de Valera’s time and through The Troubles. If anything, you could see the continued polarisation of Northern Irish politics between a more conservative DUP and progressive Sinn Fein with other parties slowly and gradually being squeezed out – though the recent local elections there suggest the Alliance party could be emerging as a home for moderate unionists. That balancing act will probably keep Northern Ireland in the UK whilst at the same time increasing pressure for some long-term solution to the border if there’s a hard border after Brexit. The immediate problem, of course, is bringing back Stormont.

A Cornish Assembly will be promised and shelved (again) – If you want a warning of what Wales might look like in the future (or without devolution), we need to look no further than our Brythonic cousins in Cornwall. You’ve got to hand Mebyon Kernow credit for keeping the flame going in difficult circumstances. In many respects, the problems facing Cornwall are ones we’re all too familiar with in Wales, yet despite devolution, we haven’t been able to fully overcome them ourselves. Calls for a Cornish Assembly will probably fall on deaf ears again and make it onto (Lib Dem) manifestos, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see the Cornish unitary authority used as a petri dish for experimenting with new forms of government – for example, a directly-elected Mayor-Premier with an elected Assembly to scrutinise them (similarly to London).

Will the Assembly be abolished?

Short answer: No, but the “threat” might increase as time passes.

There are too many hurdles in the way for this to happen immediately; namely, there would need to be a mandate for abolition at both ends of the M4 in order for a London-rule referendum to get onto the table (due to the Senedd’s “permanence” in the UK constitution). That means UKIP or Abolish the Assembly winning significant numbers of seats in the UK Parliament and Senedd or, as happened with Brexit, a spineless Conservative Prime Minister gets so terrified of losing ground to the far-right and other British nationalists that they adopt their ideas – which is a plausible scenario.

With Brexit almost out of the way, UKIP has decided Islamophobia – and a strident hooligan British nationalism of the like that we haven’t seen since the 1970s – is the way forward for them.

UKIP have re-adopted direct London rule to ensure their medium-term survival because there’s a hardcore minority – up to 20% of the electorate – who genuinely want the Senedd abolished. As that party drifts further and further towards the extremes, they’ll prefer the guarantee of that level of support and relevance rather than risk oblivion by not standing for anything.

Fortunately, the anti-devolution vote is likely to be split between various parties. I doubt Abolish the Assembly would merge themselves back into UKIP; they probably think they have the clearer message while UKIP have become a spiritual successor to the BNP (people promoting abolition of the Assembly will need to be seen to be above reproach), so we’ll probably retain at least two direct rule parties.

I see no reason why UKIP can’t maintain a long-term presence in the Senedd (though only 2-4 AMs) nor why Abolish the Assembly couldn’t win Senedd seats – perhaps as early as 2021. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Brexit Party adopts direct-rule too. I don’t see opposition to devolution falling either. That’s because of sustained public service stagnation and decline (particularly health and local government), as well as demographic changes (migration from England and general ageing of the population) – so support for direct rule could increase at a faster rate than support for independence (in multi-option polls) but remain a minority view.

I also believe that within the next 5-10 years at least one relatively well-known figure in Welsh politics – perhaps from the Conservatives, perhaps from within the Senedd – will come out in support of direct rule and their reasoning will be Labour’s management of the NHS. I would’ve had Ann Clwyd down as one too but she’s already come out and said it which was (given her reasons) predictable.

Psychologically, an institution that was voted into existence and can be voted out of existence again – unlike Westminster. It’s worth a reminder that it took British nationalists and other fellow travellers a little over 40 years to overturn the 1975 EU membership referendum….but they did eventually overturn it. The biggest problem direct-rule supporters have is they’ll have to prove that the alternative will be better and not just result in the same problems but with zero accountability.

Will Wales become independent by 2039?

Truth be told: heart says “Yes”, head says “No” – and I’ve always let my head rule my heart. 2036 would be a “nice” realistic date to aim for as it would mark the 500th anniversary of the Laws in Wales Acts, but these things can happen at any time or not happen at all – it depends on a magical alignment of circumstances.

I’ve never cared much for my own popularity so I’ll say there’s no point in pretending otherwise that for the moment independence is a sidelined, if moderately growing, view. But before I get it in the neck, the mood has noticeably shifted – I saw that for myself at yesterday’s AUOB march. There was a point only a few years ago where even mentioning Welsh independence to someone would result in the other person creasing, but that’s not entirely the case anymore.

Even in Bridgend – one of the more anglicised parts of Wales – while people aren’t flag-waving nationalists, anecdotally you get just as many, “It’s a nice idea, but….” alongside the more typical, “Independence is a silly idea” when prompted, though it’s not as if it’s at the forefront of people’s minds – and that’s why events like AUOB are important. People are rightly sceptical and have many questions, but they don’t dismiss it out of hand in the same numbers that they used to; I used to dismiss it as well a decade or so ago. It would be fair to say IndyCuriosity is perhaps growing more so than IndyConfidence – it’s a question as to which way the balance will tip when the time comes, as well as the balance between “heart” and “head” arguments on independence as a concept.

The IndyWales movement as a whole is certainly making good progress on the “heart” side of the argument but is still falling short when it comes to the “head”.

Hefin David AM (Lab, Caerphilly) has become something of a boogeyman to nationalists recently (….and maybe he likes that) – but I can tell you all now that nobody in the Senedd has been as supportive of my efforts on Senedd Home and here as he has. Yes, Twitter’s supposed “arch unionist” supporting the work of one of the main nationalist sites; that tells me he’s more open-minded than people have given him credit for. You’re all going to have to accept he has a point too.

Power abhors a vacuum. To win the political, academic and civil society support needed to secure independence and build a new nation afterwards you need to win the rational arguments and give a clear idea of what independence could and should look like – not just wave flags or shout/paint slogans. You need to convince economists and businesses that the numbers add up. You need to convince equalities charities and alike that Wales really will be a better place for women and minorities. You need to convince English monoglots that they won’t be forced to speak Welsh. You need to convince people nearing retirement that their pensions are safe. You need to convince everyone that independence is actually worth the effort in the first place.

Ultimately, Scotland voted “No” in 2014 because enough doubts were seeded in people’s minds over currency, EU membership, pensions and defence. Not over who said what on Twitter.

State of Wales was set up to deal with that but that makes me one of a depressingly small number of people who’ve attempted to do it.

There’s the outside chance of an event/events which triggers a more serious push for independence than we’ve seen in the last 20 years. That could be Scottish independence, the reunification of Ireland, the election of a nationalist administration in the Senedd, an unpopular decision relating to Wales being taken by the UK Government (i.e. burying nuclear waste in Wales), or the election of a populist English nationalist as UK Prime Minister.

Welsh independence could go mainstream as an idea in the same way it has in Scotland, Catalonia etc. Some polls already show support for independence in a “Yes/No” style question at about 20% – much higher than in multi-option polls. There’s also a whole post-devolution generation coming of age who’ve known nothing but the Senedd and while they may not be convinced by independence, they perhaps don’t flatly rule it out like older generations.

The UK resembles a loveless marriage where the only things holding it together are passive-aggressive threats, a very large wallet and platinum credit card; we’re largely in it for the money and not much else – but that’s still a big pull and centuries of perceived wisdom to overcome. Brexit has shown up the UK constitution for the mess that it is and unleashed a nasty genie that’s always been on the shelf but been kept safely bottled up – although the Irish have seen it at its full fury. There are clear positives to some aspects of the UK, but you have to look at what’s happened to it during the 2000s and 2010s and ask, “Where is this going?” “Do we really want to stay a part of that?”

I wouldn’t say it’s a “make or break” period for Welsh nationalism, but if the idea of independence is going to be more firmly embedded in people’s hearts and minds it’ll happen over the next few years – and I believe it will, if not quite to the point where it can deliver a successful referendum.

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