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Devolution in Wales has always existed in a type of limbo; neither fully embraced by the public nor under immediate threat.
While outright hostility towards devolution has decreased since 1999 – and the odds of direct rule from London being re-established are slim – the very principle of devolution has been questioned far more often in Wales than either Scotland and Greater London (Northern Ireland stands apart for obvious reasons) – demonstrated by recent opinion pieces and news articles on polling which show that a large minority remain in favour of handing whatever control we have back to London.
It’s very easy to fall into a trap of thinking devolution can only head in one direction or is a settled will. Wales being Wales that’s never the case. We have hundreds of years of browbeating that has conditioned us to consider any chance for self-advancement or self-empowerment as being dangerous or undesirable; if there’s anything you can say is true about the Welsh character, it’s that we’re more than happy to let someone else decide things for us because we’re uniquely incapable of doing things for ourselves.
There are many reasons behind this, ranging from a genuine British nationalism that rejects all notions of political Welshness, through to simple (and a legitimate, if misplaced) dissatisfaction with how much successive Welsh governments have (or haven’t) delivered.
I thought it was worth going through some of the most popular devolution tropes to decide which ones have an element of truth to them and which ones are just bollocks.
Everything is Terrible: Wales has gotten consistently worse – that’s the Assembly’s fault!
One of the most common mistakes people make is confusing the Senedd/Welsh Assembly/”WAG” with the Welsh Government.
When the Assembly was first set up, they kept it as a single organisation – a bit like a local council. The result was that whenever something went wrong the entire institution would be blamed, not the government alone. Despite the government being split from the Assembly years ago it still happens.
Think of it like this: When a sports team is underperforming, you don’t close the club, you hire a new coach. During the mid-1990s, the Welsh rugby and football teams were so bad that scrapping them and handing over control to the English FA and RFU – allowing the best players to compete for a place with England – probably looked tempting, even sensible.
If you want another example, if Cardiff Council was deemed to be letting people down consistently for decades or not using money correctly, few people would argue that Cardiff Council should be abolished and would be better run from Bristol.
Likewise, when something bad happens at a UK level, people don’t argue that the UK Parliament should be abolished. The blame ultimately lies with the government minister who makes the decisions as well as the Prime Minister (because they’re the person in overall charge). At an election, you can vote for someone else. The same thing applies to the Assembly and Welsh Government.
For the last 21 years, the Welsh Government has been run by Labour either by themselves or with another party because that’s what the Welsh electorate (those who bothered to turn out) voted for, giving them a thumbs up to carry out their policies.
If the Assembly wasn’t there to ask questions and put people in charge on the spot on your behalf – like the old system of unelected Welsh Secretaries – there would be fewer opportunities to hold people to account and with just 40 MPs (soon to be cut to 30-ish) Wales has never had much of a voice at UK level before or after devolution.
The Golden Age Fallacy: Things were better in the good old days!
An argument that boils down to, “I really miss white dog shit!”
Most of Wales’ economic and social decline – economic underperformance, increased drug-taking, anti-social behaviour, community breakdown, welfare dependency, creaking public services etc. – happened between the late 1970s and late 1990s.
While devolution hasn’t done anywhere near enough to turn this around, in some aspects it’s stopped the rot. There are also challenges we face now that we didn’t face as often in previous decades such as an older, sicker population, a growing need to produce more energy from clean sources and big shifts in where we work and what jobs we do (particularly in light of the internet).
The economy has stabilised, there’s been a big investment in new school buildings, some social indicators have improved (teenage pregnancies have fallen dramatically, fewer students are leaving school without any qualifications and cancer treatment times are amongst the best in the UK) while Wales has become a world-leader in recycling. Many smaller ideas first passed through the Senedd have been copied elsewhere.
That’s not good enough by itself, but you can’t look at things through rose-tinted glasses.
Last week’s protest and debate in the Senedd on the Royal Glamorgan Hospital is an example of why devolution matters – the decisions are being taken in Wales, the decision-makers are being held to account by politicians 100% focused on Wales and it’s much easier for the public to get their voices heard.
Joe Hart’s Wrists: The Senedd doesn’t have any real power behind it to make a difference
Nearly all of the major services you use day-to-day – except for welfare and the criminal justice system – are the responsibility of the Welsh Government and held accountable by the Senedd. This includes health, social services and social care, education (including universities), most aspects of public transport, roads, the environment, local government, farming etc.
Since 2006, the Assembly has had the power to make laws in areas under its responsibility – further expanded by a “Yes” vote in a 2011 referendum – and since 2014 they’ve also been able to vary taxes.
In the devolved system, the Assembly’s powers are exactly where they’re supposed to be – more powerful than local government, but not as powerful as the UK Government and parliament.
It’s a question of priorities. Have Welsh governments been too slow to act in some areas and too eager to act in others?
The Sore Loser: The Senedd was only approved by a small majority in the first place. We should hold a third/fourth referendum!
Winner takes all. That’s how first-past-the-post works. 50%+1. The margin of victory doesn’t matter.
Following the 1997 referendum, the UK Government bent over backwards to accommodate the “No” campaign and No campaigners were actively involved in shaping how the new Assembly would work from 1999 – some of whom later became converts to devolution, particularly Conservatives.
A second referendum to expand devolved law-making powers was approved by 63.5% in 2011 off the back of a poor turnout; that was an ample opportunity to stall devolution or even place its future into doubt but it didn’t happen.
I’m sure many of the people making this argument don’t support holding another Brexit referendum any time soon and complain about “Remoaners” who can’t accept that referendum result, despite neither Leave or Remain attracting majority support of the electorate as a whole – but the winner takes all.
Wales! Voted! Leave!: AMs tried to block Brexit!
They couldn’t have blocked Brexit even if they wanted to, but there were attempts to at least influence how Brexit would happen to protect Welsh interests – namely trade (Wales exports more to the EU than we import, unlike the UK as a whole).
All but four sitting AMs (as of Feb. 2020) were elected before the EU referendum and the majority of them either supported Remain or are members of parties whose official policy was to remain in the EU. The votes and debates reflected that.
You can certainly argue that they should have taken the electorate’s views into account, but is it equally dishonest to suddenly convert to something you don’t believe in? Don’t we criticise politicians who lack principles and “flip flop” to whatever’s popular at the time?
AMs certainly debated Brexit far too often considering they had zero influence, but within months of the referendum the Welsh Government (together with Plaid Cymru) prepared a plan for Brexit (pdf). It was ignored. The process has been entirely driven by the UK Government.
The Spreadsheet Gambit: The Senedd is too expensive to run; you could spend all that wasted money on schools and hospitals!
The Senedd’s running costs are around £60million a year (pdf).
That’s a lot, but to put it in perspective, the entire devolved budget is somewhere between £16-18,000,000,000 a year. The NHS and social services budget in Wales is around £8,000,000,000 a year (131 times the Assembly’s running costs) and the amount spent on education/schools each year is around £2,800,000,000 (46 times).
The Assembly’s budget would barely cover the cost of schools in one of the smaller local authorities and the only major new hospital under construction in Wales at the moment – near Cwmbran – has cost the equivalent of almost six times the Assembly’s annual budget (£350million). The NHS in Wales spends up to three times the Senedd’s budget on agency staff alone every year and the Welsh Government is set to increase health spending by £342million for 2020-21.
Also, the £60million would still be at least partly spent by the Wales Office, UK Parliament or UK Government departments in London if we gave responsibility for running Wales back to them.
So in the grand scheme of things, there’s not that much money to save and quite a bit to lose going back to my point on accountability. Good accountability saves money in the longer-run because mistakes are properly picked up and (hopefully) fixed. You get good accountability by electing the right politicians; you get zero accountability by getting rid of them or handing power to fewer people.
The Hot Air Argument: The Senedd is a talking shop – they don’t discuss anything that matters to me/my area!
Odds are AMs probably have discussed something that matters to you – you just haven’t heard about it. One of the biggest problems since devolution has been weak media coverage.
Most topics discussed by AMs matter to the whole of Wales by default – cancer treatment times, for example, or matters relating to housing, school funding or farming – though AMs regularly ask questions relating to their particular constituency or region.
In the last few weeks, AMs debated topics as diverse as safe standing at football grounds, animal welfare, school and social care budgets, promoting Wales abroad, medical recruitment and rail services – and that’s before counting the detailed scrutiny AMs do in committee inquiries on issues that affect you (something that rarely happened before devolution).
It’s more accurate to say that the topics AMs discuss aren’t “sexy” (compared to foreign policy, terror laws or crime, for instance) and are usually quite technical so it’s often hard to make it into an interesting story.
If you do want to keep up with what AMs are saying and doing then head over to Senedd Home – there’s an e-mail newsletter with all posts from the week sent out every Thursday afternoon.
Complaining About Shows You Didn’t Watch: Nobody turns up for debates and AMs spend all their time looking at the computer screens; if they can’t be bothered, why should we be?
AMs often have to juggle other things with being in the chamber. They could be meeting constituents or visiting groups, be at a meeting of their political party, working on reports etc. Government ministers have their responsibilities to juggle as well as their constituency/regional roles.
Some AMs clearly believe certain debates justify their attendance (i.e the budget or a major vote on a new law) more than others (i.e a backbench debate). Also, when the Senedd is on recess, it’s not a “holiday” – it just means there are no official meetings scheduled, with AMs usually using the time to do work in their constituencies or regions.
Like many other parliaments, AMs sometimes take part in “pairing” – whereby an opposition AM and a government AM agree not to attend and/or vote if one of them is going to be absent, meaning the result in a vote isn’t skewed – that may partly explain a large number of non-votes in some debates.
There have been calls by some AMs for the computer screens to be taken out of the Senedd chamber. With the use of tablet computers and alike things are heading in that direction – but ultimately the computers are there so AMs can do work in the chamber instead of in their offices and also do other things such as send messages to each other or indicate when they want to speak.
I Walked Into A Pub: All the Assembly ever goes on about is the Welsh language/it’s dominated by Welsh-speakers
Welsh-speakers are over-represented amongst AMs compared to the population of Wales as a whole – but not by much.
By my count, around a third of AMs (at least 18-19) are either fluent Welsh-speakers or have learned enough Welsh to use it in meetings etc. compared to around 20% of the wider population.
The majority of meetings are conducted in English, though it’s operated bilingually without any problems since it was established. The Welsh language isn’t discussed that often compared to most other topics and just because an AM speaks in Welsh during a debate or committee meeting, it doesn’t mean they’re discussing Welsh itself – most of the time it’s their first language regardless of what’s being discussed.
The biggest problem at the Senedd isn’t the language AMs use, but the number of buzzwords and management-speak.
Jobs For The Boyos: AMs are only in it for themselves; look at their pay and perks!
AMs don’t set their pay and expenses. An independent body decides it for them and usually when pay increases are proposed AMs fall over themselves to be the first to come out and say they don’t want it and it’s a bad idea. The last big pay increase was in 2016.
As things stand, an AM without any additional responsibilities (government minister etc.) earns around £67,700-a-year and the busier amongst them might work anything up to 50-60 hours a week – though this will vary from AM to AM and ministers are effectively on-call 24/7. They also have a budget to hire staff to help them and have access to expenses, which you can search here; everything is out in the open.
For comparison, an MP without additional responsibilities earns just under £80,000-a-year (before expenses), a backbench Member of the Scottish Parliament earns around £61,800 (but there are 129 of them compared to 60 Welsh AMs) and a Member of the Northern Irish Assembly earns around £48,000-a-year (but there are 90 of them compared to 60 Welsh AMs).
When I Was T’Lad: None of these AMs have ever done an honest day’s work in their lives; we need more real people as AMs!
The vast majority of AMs had a job outside politics before being elected. Teaching and/or lecturer has long been one of the most popular pre-Assembly careers alongside farming and legal work such as solicitors and barristers.
There’ve been at least two (medical) doctors who’ve served as AMs, a care assistant, musicians, probation officers, trained firefighters, driving instructors, computer engineers, charity workers, bank managers, accountants, journalists, at least one former police officer and many who’ve run their own businesses; farmers and many legal professionals run their own businesses by default.
In a very few cases, AMs will have taken a pay cut to stand and a fair few have been local councillors or even MPs before being elected to the Senedd.
That said, the Senedd hasn’t been anywhere near as reflective of Welsh society as it could be.
On the whole, AMs are a broad reflection of middle-class Wales, but without the levels of entrenched privilege seen at Westminster. While many AMs attended top universities, by my count 5 sitting AMs (8%) went to a private school at some point compared to around 29% of MPs.
There’ve also been too few AMs with disabilities (though many AMs have had to deal with long-term illnesses) and no women from minority ethnic backgrounds.
Yes, a minority of AMs have indeed been elected after being a union rep, special adviser, party staffer or some sort of policy wonk – but the majority haven’t. There are also issues around what AMs do when they leave politics, but very few have gone on to do politically-connected work like lobbying.
There’ve been more than a few duff AMs down the years too – I’ll be the first to say that having spent too much time monitoring their work – but nearly all of them take their role seriously and even when they might not give the best speeches or ask the sharpest questions, the heart is usually in the right place.
The people who rail against “career politicians” and “the establishment”, however, are usually career politicians or party wonks themselves and from my experience are often shown up not long after being elected.
The Slippery Slope: The Assembly is a slippery slope to independence/they only want more powers for themselves
A clear majority of AMs are against independence. Despite an increasing sense of “indycuriosity” amongst some folk that’s likely to be the case for the time being.
Any increase in support for independence in the Senedd will probably be a reflection of a change in the public’s attitudes.
And, if anything, successive Welsh governments have been reluctant to take on extra powers.
The Senedd is far weaker than both the Scottish Parliament and Northern Irish Assembly – even the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have more control over their own affairs than Wales without being independent.