Devolution is different in Wales. The talk here isn’t about an upcoming independence referendum or whether we’re heading for ‘devo max’ in the event of a ‘No’ vote. Instead, there’s a national indifference about it. With the possible exception of the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, the Welsh Cabinet are not household names, and most people couldn’t tell you which institution is responsible for what areas in post-devolution Wales.
Outside the Welsh language elite class, known as the ‘Crachach’, there has never been much enthusiasm for devolution. In the first referendum, held in March 1979, the plans were defeated by a majority of 4:1 (20.3% for and 79.4% against) with only 12% of the Welsh electorate voting in favour of establishing an assembly.
When the second referendum was held in 1997, the Blair government did all it could to try and secure a ‘Yes’ vote, dropping the requirement for at least 40% of the total electorate to back the plan for it to be deemed valid, and holding the vote a week after the Scottish referendum to try and ensure a ‘bounce’ effect.
Even so, turnout was just 50.1%, of whom just 50.3% voted in favour. This means that despite the government’s efforts to help secure a ‘Yes’ vote, only around one in four of the Welsh electorate actually voted for the creation of a National Assembly, hardly a ringing endorsement, and arguably not a democratic mandate.
The institution was to have no tax varying or law making powers, but it did get to determine policy in 20 subject areas including health, education and housing. The big exceptions, which remain at Westminster are taxation (and most of the Chancellor’s Budget), foreign policy, defence, law and order, and work and pensions. In time, the Assembly was granted powers to make laws in the areas in which it has powers, though until 2011 these had to have the consent of the UK Parliament.
The Assembly itself got off to a rocky start when Ron Davies, the Secretary of State for Wales who steered through the devolution legislation, was forced to resign from the Cabinet following his ‘moment of madness’ on Clapham Common, and the following year, shortly after being elected as an Assembly Member, he resigned as chairman of the Assembly’s Economic Development Committee after a Sunday newspaper revealed he was undergoing psychiatric treatment for a personality disorder which compelled him to seek out ‘high risk’ situations.
Before the Assembly’s first sitting, a contest was held for Labour’s Candidate to become First Secretary (later re-named First Minister) between the Alun Michael, backed by Tony Blair and the trade unions, and Rhodri Morgan, who had the overwhelming support of grass roots Labour members.
Michael won, but there would be recriminations further down the line. The astute pollster, Peter Kellner, described the contest as “another fix" in order "to ensure Alun Michael became Labour's leader in Wales" which Kellner said "offended so many voters that it lost some of its safest seats, including Rhondda, to Plaid Cymru.”
The impact was so serious that come the first set of elections to the Assembly, Labour, who a few months earlier were expected to win at least half of the 60 seats with some ease, ended up falling short of an overall majority, and Michael led a minority administration, while turnout was just 46.3%.
After barely eight months in office, and with the three main opposition parties easily able to destabalise his administration, Michael resigned in an attempt to avoid a vote of ‘no confidence’ over the availability of Objective 1 funding from the European Union, and in February 2000 he was replaced by Rhodri Morgan.
Morgan put distance between himself and the Westminster Labour government, particularly in relation to foundation hospitals and competition in public services, and he went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats to stabilise the government.
At the 2003 elections, turnout dropped to just 38.2%. Morgan’s Labour Party won 30 of the 60 seats, ensuring he had a majority once Plaid Cymru’s Dafydd Ellis Thomas was elected Presiding Officer (the Speaker). Morgan’s Labour Party went it alone, in a period marked by his belief in collaboration between public service providers, in stark contrast to the Blairite policy of competition.
This period was overshadowed by the ongoing furore of the new debating chamber. Under the original devolution proposals in 1979, the plan was for the Assembly to sit at the Coal Exchange in Cardiff, one of the most beautiful buildings in Britain, but one that has been neglected in recent years and is currently covered in scaffolding. Even under the 1997 referendum proposals, there were no plans for a debating chamber. The Hansard record of 22 July 1997 quotes Ron Davies as saying, “We do not propose to construct a new building for the Assembly, or to create more bureaucracy in a democratic Wales or more civil servants”.
Assembly Members soon got an appetite for a grand new building. Until 2006, the Assembly sat in a temporary chamber in Crickhowell House, part of a 1990s civil service office block. It was a functional, if somewhat ugly building. Common sense would have dictated they move to the Coal Exchange, a short walk away, but Assembly Members wanted something specifically built for them. When the new debating chamber was eventually opened in 2006, it was nearly six times over budget at £69.6 million, and four years and ten months late.
In 2007, a decade after the referendum that led to the Assembly’s creation, overall turnout at the Assembly elections was just 43.7%. Labour dropped to 26 seats, but after talks for a ‘Rainbow Coalition’ between Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats broke down, Morgan’s Labour entered into coalition with Plaid Cymru.
Four years later, a referendum was held asking the question, “Do you want the Assembly now to be able to make laws on all matters in the 20 subject areas it has powers for?” The subsequent ‘Yes’ vote meant the Assembly could pass Acts in these areas without the consent of Westminster.
The referendum result saw 63.49% vote ‘Yes’ to 36.51% ‘No’, but turnout was just 35.63%, meaning that below 20% of the Welsh electorate had actually voted ‘Yes’ – hardly an enthusiastic endorsement for the proposal.
Back in 1997, the people of Wales were told that Assembly costs would not exceed £17 million per year, but by the time of the 2011 referendum, the number of Assembly Civil Servants had almost tripled, with Welsh Government administration costs in excess of £300 million per year.
Internal waste is one of the features of the Assembly. In 2010/11, the Welsh Government spent £38,240 on potted plants and other decorative fauna. The following year, that figure fell to £28,010.91 and in 2011/12 it was £28,591.
Seventeen years after the Assembly came into being, what has it achieved for the people of Wales? There is the gimmick of free prescriptions, but only half of Welsh hospitals have stroke units, compared to 90% in England. In 2012/13 patients in Wales waited on average 170 days for a hip or knee replacement, compared to 77 days in England and 67 days in Scotland. That figure is getting worse – in 2009/10 the Welsh average wait was 101 days. Worse still, 10% of patients in Wales had to wait almost 300 days for a knee or hip replacement, a coronary artery bypass, or removal of a varicose vein.
In addition, ambulance waiting times are an on-going cause for concern. In February this year, 52.8% of life-threatening calls saw an ambulance arrive in eight minutes compared with a 65% target. Whichever way you look at it, for all its problems, the NHS in England is in significantly better shape than its Welsh counterpart, leading David Cameron to say Offa's Dyke has become "a line between life and death".
Despite the problems with the NHS and cutbacks to other public services however, there is always money to appease Welsh language fanatics. In June, current First Minister Carwyn Jones announced £1.6 million of funding to help promote the Welsh language.
To put this into perspective, 80% of Welsh people speak little or no Welsh. English is our national language. One of the most noticeable aspects of post-devolution Wales has been the ‘Welshification’ of the country.
Correspondence from public bodies now has to be done in both English and Welsh. Announcements at railway stations are in both languages, despite the fact everyone speaks English and time is of the essence as people move between platforms. School inspectors are told to look for ‘evidence of Welsh being spoken outside the classroom’, regardless of whether or not they’re in an English-speaking area.
In conclusion, it’s hard to see how, 17 years after its creation, the Assembly has been anything other than an embarrassing, expensive failure for the people of Wales. It is run for the benefit of the people who work for it, and for the ‘Crachach’, but still lacks a democratic mandate from the majority of the Welsh electorate.
By Marcus Stead