Friday, 5 February 2010

True Doublethink

Over the last few days in the Welsh media we have been treated to a fresh round of debate around the question of the probable forthcoming referendum, and the question of transferring primary law making power (over the 20 “Fields” that are devolved to us) from London to Wales. Once again the No campaign has been making its case for continuing with the status quo.

But this No campaign has chosen what I think is an interesting and telling name for itself to act under. True Wales it calls itself, in true Orwellian fashion, and immediately claims the monopoly of truth in the argument. Any of us who stand on the other side of the debate must be lying, or maybe we are simply mistaken in our view of what Wales is, what it is that makes this nation, maybe if we are a nation at all.

It seems to be the intent of their campaign to blur the edges of this argument until we all forget what we are supposed to be talking about. Those of us who would take part in a Yes campaign, such as myself would do well to keep our eyes on the ball. True Wales have in Rachel Banner (their main spokesperson) an articulate lady, and most importantly someone who is not a politician, but also someone who doesn't seem to understand one of the main distinctions to be found in any democratic system of government. It might not be completely her fault, it is a problem that has been known about for a long time, and it is the distinction between a legislature, and an executive.

In Wales the Legislature is known as the National Assembly for Wales (or Welsh Assembly for short), and the Executive is the Welsh Assembly Government. A start in addressing this problem would be to take the word 'Assembly' out of the executives name, to make it the Welsh Government, hopefully then the distinction would be more clear. This would be a logical step if the Assembly does gain law making powers, as like in Scotland (where the executive is called the Scottish Government) the Welsh Government would be a government in the more proper sense of the word.

Rachel Banner consistently sites her own party's (she is a Labour party activist) policy decisions, and lack of success in government as a reason for not trusting the Welsh Assembly as an institution. The Western Mail mentioned this in Mondays comment section, and quite rightly, it is all too common in these times to level criticism at institutions rather than at the people and parties where it more deservedly belongs. We do not call for the downfall of democracy when governments get it wrong, we vote out the government or attempt to democratically change the nature of that democracy to give people greater say. But that does not seem to be what Rachel and her True Wales cohorts seem to be advocating.

For theirs is the argument for the devolution status quo, which implies that the devolution settlement we currently have is working just fine, which has consistently shown itself to not be true, just take the example of the problems which beset the Affordable Housing LCO. And it will inevitably appeal to the forces of reaction (thankfully a decreasing minority) who wish to see the Welsh Assembly scrapped and a return to the days of the Welsh Office and the major lack of democratic accountability that was inherent in that.

There are some things on which I agree with Rachel, for example that devolution of power should extend down as far as practically possible, but Rachel does not seem to think that a Yes vote would be a step in that direction. I also personally agree with her that we should not have computers in our national debating chamber and that the level of argument could be improved and could be far more passionate. One vote, one voice, amongst the 2.3 millions others that make up the Welsh electorate may not seem to count for much when expressed through our 60 elected representatives that sit in the Senedd in Cardiff Bay. But it counts for more than 1 vote in UK general elections where many votes are wasted under the first past the post system, and where it is 1 voice amongst 45.2 million, represented by 40 members from Wales, competing with 606 members from other parts of the UK to have their ideas implemented. Such is the nature of representative democracy, and the principal of majority rule.

It becomes a problem especially if parts of that electorate consider themselves separate nations, as the Welsh, English and Scots clearly do. Autonomy is one way to deal with this, and it is my belief that when powers are given from a centralised state and spread around, power is wisely dispersed. True Wales don't agree with this, they believe that the power to make law on areas that are devolved to Wales (such as Health, Education, the Environment etc), is better kept in London. If they and their spokesperson really wanted the people of Wales' to have more of a say in their government they would be on the other side of the argument. Rachel Banner likes the idea of 'citizen juries', she doesn't like the idea of free prescriptions for all, she doesn't like the way Wales is underfunded (and will be increasingly so if her Labour party continues with the Barnett formula), all valid points of argument, but she doesn't trust the people of Wales to make decisions on such matters.

And why? What is the cause of all her fears? It seems it is 2 things, and is the staple propaganda of No campaigners ever since, and everywhere the idea of home rule has arisen. They are the thoughts of a sinister Welsh elite taking control of ever increasing power, and the prospect of Welsh independence. Who are these Welsh elite? Well, it seems that it is our elected representatives in Cardiff Bay, unlike their all caring and truthful MP equivalents who sit in the Palace of Westminster. These members of the political class have dark plans to take us headlong into poverty without letting the people of Wales have any say, or so True Wales might have us believe.

The problem for Rachel and True Wales is that they wont be able to play this card for long, it wont be long after the Yes and No campaigns are fully up and running after the general election, that some members of this same political class (mainly MP's and Lords I'd imagine) will join her side of the debate and start campaigning for a No vote. True Wales' stance as the anti-politics, people's choice will fall apart. Professor Richard Wyn Jones, director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University has made this very point. We certainly cannot do much worse with our chance in Welsh governance than UK rule did for most of the second half of the 20th century when Wales was consistently one of poorest parts of the UK, and in areas poorer than parts of eastern Europe.

Maybe Rachel Banner could stand for election to the National Assembly in 2011, and if she won she could help out with the “intellectual disagreements” that she quite rightly wants more of, she would certainly bring some passion to the Senedd. But would she after having had those passionate debates, and maybe won them, having convinced her fellow Assembly Members of the merits of her arguments and voted on creating a new law to see that principle enacted, want to jump through the various loops the LCO system now presented her with. To have another parliament amend her request out of all recognisable shape, potentially veto it, and wait years for the power to return. Would she not ask whether this was a sensible system of democracy and worth all the time and tax payers money? Would she not think that the Richard Commission which looked into this problem and advocated an Assembly with primary legislative powers, so that it was clear where power lay, was maybe the right and logical next step in making things work properly? Or would she still argue that bad government was better than giving one inch to an imagined elite that plotted the end of our Welsh civilisation.

Dan Lawrence

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