By Ray Bell
On the 3rd of March, people in Wales shall be voting on greater powers for the Assembly. This is a huge step forward for the country, and another nail in the coffin of the UK. Despite some narrow-minded gibes about Wales being the “slow boat in the convoy”, by Scottish activists, this is in fact not the case. Wales is unlikely to overtake Scotland, but for the last ten years, it has actually travelled further and faster than Scotland has in that time.
1979 was a grim year for Scotland and Wales, and so were the 1980s. Not just the Referendum failure, but because of Margaret Thatcher’s election in England. It looked as if Wales would never achieve self-government. Pessimism was prevalent, Welsh industry in heavy decline in the Valleys, the Welsh language in a perilous state, rural Wales devastated by high housing prices and holiday ghost towns. Even the Welsh rugby team went into a form of hibernation for the best part of twenty years.
The only ray of hope came in 1982 when Gwynfor Evans and Cymdeithas fought a brave fight, and held the Tories to their pre-election promise of a Welsh language channel. Billy Kay has described this victory as “kicking in the door” on the language issue. But this came in the wake of the Falklands War, in which Welsh troops had taken disproportionate casualties. More ironically, many of the Argentine aerial strikes had been launched from Trelew, in the Province of Chubut, which had been founded as a Welsh-speaking colony. S4C still exists, but other than receding memories of the war, the Falklands have faded back into obscurity
I mind well, visiting Cardiff with my parents in the 1980s. The place seemed dark, the people despondent. And no wonder. It had been built on the coal mining industry. When I visited there in the early 2000s, it had changed for the better. The city was brighter, and it seemed happier. It still had one or two rough areas, but the effect of the Assembly on the city was much more noticeable than that of the Scottish Parliament upon Edinburgh. The new Millenium Stadium, and Millenium Centre, also made the city better, and unlike the Dome on the Thames, seemed to have a purpose. The city’s resounding “no” in the two referendums was now being counteracted by a growing confidence in devolution, even if support for independence and Plaid Cymru, Forward Wales etc was fairly low. Wales as a whole seemed to have a new self-confidence beaming out of it.
1997 was a better year for Scotland and Wales. Labour was closer to the Welsh heart than the Tories, at least Welsh people voted for that party in larger numbers. Welsh Labour had ceased to be quite as anti-Welsh as it had been under Neil Kinnock (aka “Kinnochio” in his home country) and George Thomas, even if it had a way to go. Cardiff voted “no” again, but the rest of Wales was less hostile, and the devolution referendum slipped through by the narrowest of margins.
So where does 2011 find Wales? The deprivation is still there in some places. The grimness has not completely gone away – the suicides of young people in Bridgend and its surrounding communities in recent years bear testimony of this. But there is still vast improvement. The One Wales coalition – Labour-Plaid – has proven itself more progressive than the Westminster governments of Brown and Cameron. It’s not ideal, but it has fought to keep medical care free, and is currently trying to pass an Affordable Housing Bill, to protect council housing stock from depletion by “right to buy”, and to ensure people in rural Wales can afford to live in their home areas. There are also plans afoot to pass a new language bill. The housing bill has already been blocked once by the current British set up (see appendix), which is a good reason why Wales needs this.
So why more powers? Devolution has proven more popular in practice than it ever was at the referendum. It’s actually grown on people there. Certain powers have already been passed over to the Assembly, so it’s in a stronger position than it was on foundation. However, it’s still pretty toothless in many areas. As Ieuan Wyn Jones, the deputy first minister, and leader of Plaid Cymru says:
“Just imagine how much more effective and transparent our process of making laws would be if we didn’t have to steer them through the various offices of the Sir Humphreys in Whitehall? So the question remains – why on earth wouldn’t we want to move to a more efficient, less costly and less bureaucratic system? I have yet to hear a plausible reason to vote ‘no’ in this referendum.”
The campaign has united the leaders of all four main parties in Wales, even the Conservatives, who were utterly opposed to devolution in ’97. Unlike the proposals of the Calman Commission in Scotland for greater powers, the Welsh proposal holds genuine merit and benefit for the country.
I dedicate this piece to the memory of Rhobert ap Steffan, who died recently after a long illness. He was a shining example of Wales’ potential.
And here’s why Wales needs a “yes” vote, and a less complex system.
Although the Assembly has the power to modify legislation from Westminster, and to legislate in twenty different areas, any other bills proposed by it have to go through a torturous system known as “Legislative Competence Orders” (LCOs). Here are the stages which an LCO has to go through to be approved:
1 – Instigation by Assembly.
2 – Draft order discussions with Whitehall (i.e. the unelected Sir Humphreys)
3 – Draft order discussions with the Welsh Office (proving that it still has a purpose, unlike the Scottish office)
4 – Publication of draft LCO.
5 – Examination by Committee at the Assembly.
6 – Examination by the Welsh Affairs Committee at Westminster (currently Tory-heavy)
7 – Examination by the Constitutional Committee of the House of Lords.
8 – Report and proposed amendments by Welsh Affairs committee.
9 – Ditto by the Constitutional Committee of the House of Lords.
10 – Examination and amendments by the Secretary of State (House of Commons) if s/he wishes it.
11 – A formal LCO approved in Cardiff, and presented to the Welsh Assembly.
12 – Consideration by Welsh Affairs Committee (Westminster again)
13 – Examination by Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.
14 – Approval by House of Commons.
15 – Approval by House of Lords.
16 – Royal Assent.
And yet we hear all the time that it’s Brussels which is bureaucratic! The referendum would cut down all of these stages into an easy handful, sorted and decided in Wales.
As you may have noticed, several of the stages include unelected sections of the British legislature, such as the Civil Service, the Lords and the Monarchy. It also includes several ones which are self-selected by Westminster, i.e. committees, the Welsh Office and the Palace of Westminster itself, which has an inbuilt English majority (which notoriously voted for Treweryn and other Welsh communities to be drowned in the 1960s).
It is unlikely the royal part will go, but roll on the “yes” vote…