Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Why devolution must prove itself

It has been an eventful week for anyone with half an eye on the upcoming Welsh Assembly powers referendum. There will be no officially designated lead campaigns, after the only applicant to form the official ‘No’ campaign failed to meet its statutory test. (Electoral law dictates that there must be campaigns to represent both sides, else none at all.)
Naturally for the parties, interest groups and individuals so inclined, the campaigning started in earnest some time ago. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the public will be sufficiently bombarded with propaganda from all quarters, and agendas, that the big day won’t pass them by unawares.
Of course, BBC Wales made an interesting observation last week within a piece about the National Assembly ‘on tour’. There is, apparently, serious concern across all political hues that the public doesn’t fully understand what’s at stake here – what it’s all about. I think that’s a bit patronising myself, although it’s probably fair to say that the debate is in danger of becoming over-simplified; lost in a perfect storm of emotive campaigning by the kind of Yes/No activists who like to view the debate only in black and white.
Elements of the ‘No’ camp, for example, may claim that a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum is yet another nail in the coffin for the Union; a ‘No’ vote, a step towards getting the removal vans (if not the bulldozers) out in the Bay… Of course the reality is a little more prosaic than that. And this leads to what I think is the rather more important point raised by discussions about the referendum, and indeed the impending Assembly elections…
It is a question of legitimacy.
Devolution, in its present guise, has existed for nearly 12 years and it must now deliver for the people of Wales. My personal view is that at the present moment in time the people of Wales would, if given the option, vote to retain devolution. I do believe that people quite like the fact that many decisions are now being taken closer to home and that, broadly speaking, they are in favour of the process and its institutions; even if they may not be keen on all of the characters embedded within!
It does of course follow that if you give someone the job of digging a ditch, it is only fair to give them a decent shovel with which to do the job. If the people of Wales, in their wisdom, see fit to put those tools in place on March 3rd then the key for the next decade will be for devolution to set about proving itself.
(Andrew @ Q&A, Plasmawr School)
A decade on, it is clear that in the three main planks of Welsh Assembly competency, the government are failing to make adequate improvements, whether measured in terms of economic development, educational performance or health outcomes. For evidence, one has only to look at the results of the recent PISA report, which showed that Wales is continuing to slip down the international educational scale.
Wales’ chief schools inspector blamed our relative poor performance against our counterparts across Europe on a “slow pace of improvement” – but the case could equally be made that we won’t see significant improvements until the deep-rooted poverty that exists in many Welsh communities is addressed. Indeed, last week The Times reported that two of Wales’ three major cities (Swansea and Newport) were among the UK’s 5 most ‘vulnerable’ cities, with only Sunderland worse-placed to stave off the effects of economic recession.
This is why it is so important for devolution to mature, and to start delivering on its potential. Many of these problems are a consequence of the failed political ideology of the left here in Wales and not necessarily the process itself- although the public may not be so kind as to make that distinction if results don’t improve.
I would argue that the key for the next decade, if powers are secured, is for WAG to start making use of the tools at its disposal; to get them working in earnest for the people of Wales. Because if this does not materialise in the next 5-10 years there is a danger that genuine questions of legitimacy will arise as to devolution’s future.
If Wales’ performance continues to reflect badly in comparison to other parts of the United Kingdom then the clamour won’t be for greater powers to the Senedd- it could well be the case that the public is starting to ask whether the place should be there at all.
That is something that politicians of all persuasions would do well to be mindful of, as we get ever closer to dissolution and, in turn, the birth of the 4th Assembly.

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