A Welsh President could forge a new path for devolution

Lloyd George statue in Cardiff. Picture by Colin Smith (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Alex Meredith

Along Gorsedd Gardens Road in Cardiff, diagonally opposite City hall, the cloaked figure of David Lloyd George stands amongst the trees; shaking his bronze fist and spoiling for a fight with authority.

Rebellious, defiant, fearless. Nothing sums up the spirit of radical Welsh politics more for me than that iconic statue.

Lloyd George’s liberalism was radical, patriotic, forthright and energetic. He challenged the lazy assumptions and false promises of the Establishment, shaking his rhetorical fist at the authorities and vested interests that had failed so miserably to deliver for Welsh people.

I was thinking about that statue as the Welsh Assembly’s Expert Panel on Assembly Reform (EPAR) delivered its report.

At a time when Wales and Welsh people are becoming increasingly disadvantaged relative to other parts of the UK and when the relevance of the Assembly to everyday life in Wales remains difficult for many people to divine, where is our spirit of radicalism?

Where is the shaking fist of defiance? Where is the fearless search for solutions that will transform lives?

There was not much evidence of radicalism in the EPAR. Undeniably there were some welcome proposals – votes at 16, single transferable vote and gender balance are all important, sensible steps forward.

But then there was the proposal to increase the size of the Assembly. More politicians is a coda to a tune that has been played by the pipers of Cardiff Bay ever since the band was formed.

It is not a radical new idea that will change the lives of people in Wales, it is the same re-heated argument put forward by the Richard Commission (2004), the Silk Commission (2012), the Fourth Assembly Commission, the Fifth Assembly Commission which all pushed for more AMs, on the grounds of greater scrutiny and fairer workloads.

EPAR at least set out the costs of these proposals, although the £6-10m cost per year is waved away as it harmonises with previous reports in a chorus of “good scrutiny means good legislation, and good legislation pays for itself”.

I might remind them of that line next time taxes go up.

This year’s report goes further to reach the conclusion that: “Even marginal improvements in the scrutiny of the Welsh Government’s expenditure and policy-making would, reap significant dividends to the taxpayer.”

I have no way of disproving this, and witnessing the waste of public money on over-engineered flood defences in my own area, I have no hesitation in agreeing that Welsh Government money could be better managed.

Fire

However, putting aside my scepticism about more AMs, I have a broader issue.

The EPAR and the muted responses to it from the political parties show that there is a lack of radical thinking in relation to Wales’ constitution.

When considering the Assembly, too many politicos in Wales are caught in the mind-set of TINA – there is no alternative.

No matter how clearly it is staring us in the face, too few politicians in Wales are willing to grapple with the idea that on most objective measures, devolution (as delivered through Assembly government) is failing Welsh people.

The National Assembly has been in existence for 18 years, alongside Westminster governments of different colours. Yet it has failed to improve economic opportunities in Wales, failed to provide better health outcomes for Welsh people and failed to raise educational standards for Welsh children.

Devolution has not delivered for Welsh people, and no amount of blaming Westminster, blaming history, blaming Welsh media or talk of expansion offers a remedy to that failure.

Moreover, although devolution has become an accepted part of the fabric of Welsh civic society, it has failed to capture the imagination of the Welsh public.

It has become a £50m per year part of the political furniture, rather than a roaring hearth of social and economic change that Lloyd George would have imagined.

So how do we inject the radical fire and heat into our Welsh political home?

Leader

For all the good intentions of EPAR and those that have gone before, I fear another 20 damp AMs will only bellow more smoke into the eyes of the Welsh electorate.

Instead, in my view, we should be looking to reshape the Welsh constitutional settlement to allow for a directly elected national leader.

Whether we call him or her a President, First Minister, Governor, Y Mab Darogan, Wales needs a leader with a direct mandate from the people to deliver on the promises of devolution and create a platform for a deeper sense of Welsh nationhood.

A directly elected leader could step outside and above the turgid, unimaginative squabbling of Welsh Assembly party politics and stand on a mandate to deliver real change.

All of the main Assembly parties are shackled by their internal divisions or electoral calculus. Too many of the parties slip far too readily into the cosy consensus and soft group-think that dominates so much of the assembly agenda.

As data on low pay, inequality, social deprivation, air quality, waiting lists, mental ill health, school results show they have collectively failed to provide leadership with the vision, clarity or tenacity to deliver change for Welsh people.

A Welsh Labour stitch up to succeed Carwyn Jones looks certain to bring to the fore yet another “leader” who will achieve far more for insomnia suffers than any other group in Welsh society.

Expect more glossy reports, more “ambition” and more of the same in terms of impact in the real world.

The prospect of direct election might attract characters from outside the Cardiff Bay or Westminster bubbles who have less deference and timidity to a political system that works for the parties.

As we have seen most recently in France, as well as in US states like California and New York dynamic figures are more willing to come forward to run a presidential or gubernatorial executive that can co-exist successfully with a legislature (preferably proportionally elected).

This structure offers the opportunity for new voices to enter the fray to make different radical offers to the people, while maintaining appropriate checks and balances.

A direct mandate would provide the platform for exactly the sort of programme that Wales needs to change the political dynamics, arrest the psychology of decline, reshape our economy and deliver real change.

A presidential-style system would also provide a strong counter-point to the discredited Westminster system, and give Wales an executive and legislative structure that would be distinct and different in the eyes of the electorate.

Our constitutional structure could finally become the political foundation on which we can build our nationhood, rather than the schizophrenic mirror of England. It would be fresh, bold, radical and distinctly Welsh.

I accept there are risks, but I would like to see the Welsh political parties talking about different constitutional arrangements in Wales, rather than reverting to a tired script about more AMs.

Risk

I would like to see more politicians in Wales ready to shake their metaphorical fist at the Senedd and ask deeper questions about how we can improve things for Welsh people through reforming our constitution, rather than accepting group-think about limited alternatives.

As we look back at a year in which stories of sleaze and bullying have persistently circulated around Welsh politics, it’s time to recapture the spirit of reform and radicalism and look outside the envelope that was created for us by the half-hearted settlement we received in 1999.

After 18 years, the Assembly settlement feels tired and fragile and in desperate need of a reboot. The adoption of a presidential-style executive is one idea. There are others, including sortition (selecting representatives by lots).

Rather than incremental changes, and more of the same, we need to examine radical ways of doing democracy differently to reconnect our institutions with the people.

If we continue to be timid, there is a real risk that the dynamic, radical dream of home rule encapsulated by Lloyd George’s shaking fist, will be gradually crushed by ever more politicians riding the gravy train into Cardiff Bay.

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24 Comments

  1. Two things.
    1) Why do we need these token rulers … heads of state …. They are becoming obsolete with technology and empowerment of people
    – Yes, we need specialisation of tasks … but why not change the hierarchial system it’s achieved under.

    Why not believe in ourselves instead of idoloise distant ‘leaders’

    2) SECONDLY …. why the picture of Lloyd George? His dealings and friendly associations with Hitler makes my stomach feel queasy

    – and that’s forgetting his UK state interference in the Irish gaining true independence. Ireland still lives with the consequences of never truly breaking with English dominion.

    More info: https://lloydgeorgesociety.org.uk/en/article/2008/0130361/lloyd-george-and-hitler

    • CambroUiDunlainge

      Because ultimately some one will get ideas. See: Julius Caesar and any number of other people throughout time. But of course this time will be different right?

  2. Lloyd George signed the Treaty of Versailles which in turn started WW2.

  3. Benjiman L. Angwin

    Thank you for this article, Alex. And thank you for bringing Liberalism and centrist radicalism to the fore.

    My work with Liberals Cymru does make me a head at present, but I am not Liberals Cymru. And so when I say I disagree with your idea, I also say our group could very well agree with you because we support democratic reform and would hold a vote on the matter.

    That said, my own view is that the Parliamentary system is the best political system I know, far superior to Presidential systems. And that leaders coming from elected parties are in fact part of what makes the Parliament system so good as we focus on ideas and politics in place of bigger than life personalities and showmanship. It allows skilled Parliamentarians like Dominic Grieves and Vince Cable and Hywel Williams to flourish and put forward their views.

    Most importantly:
    Non est minuere ad panem et circenses.
    (It does not reduce to bread and circuses)

  4. Bois bach, bad day when people start craving for a “leader”. We certainly need leadership skills but embedded in a diverse leadership group not some fancy person elevated onto some pedestal so that we can fawn over him/her before tiring and setting out to knock him/her off that same pedestal. A good start point would be to eliminate the fashion for media sound bites, those are fine for football managers, even rugby coaches, but coming from leaders in politics ( and business ) it really does sound like corny bullshit. Instead let’s aim for a depth of knowledge and understanding so that ministers can be articulate and sincere about their areas of responsibility and representatives have a good grasp of their constituencies. That would be a great leap forward for starters.

  5. Best place for Lloyd George is to leave him where he is on top of the Gents in Caernarfon.
    The problem with the Welsh Government is the people who run it not the details of its constitution. Twenty years of Labour is more than enough. Labour exists to return Labour MPs to Westminster,to form a government there,a totally fruitless and pointless exercise.
    We need to get Labour out of office in the Senedd and get and get rid London government of Wales. Then and only then will Wales start to prosper.

  6. No to president with an executive role, yes to a president such as Mary Robinson was in Ireland.

    • Mary Robinson was probably the exception – consider other presidents of so called democracies and there is a shocking lack of real leadership or stewardship. Too many of these people crave the trappings, arrive in post with little or no real vision just a pile of grandiose crap that is doomed to failure. Of course it’s the ordinary folk, the electorate, that pays for those failures.

  7. Wow Alex with friends like you welsh devolution hardly needs any enemies. I’m afraid you don’t seem to have grasped the fact that welsh devolution and the welsh government are not the same thing. So when you criticise failings in any actions of the senedd it’s not devolution that’s to blame – but the party which has been in power in the senedd since its establishment in 1999. And furthermore when discussing welsh devolution it has to be borne in mind that all the major economic levers which affect Wales are actually still in the hands of British governments at Westminster.

    Regarding proposals to increase the number of AMs from 60 to 80 i would point out that in comparison with the other devolved administrations in the UK our senedd is the poor relation in terms of numbers. And when you cite the issue of cost remember that westminster recently voted to spend 6 billion giving the building they sit in a makeover? So if its okay for british parliamentarians to spend billions tarting up their building it’s surely okay for wales to spend a few million to ensure we have sufficient numbers of elected representatives in the senedd.

    So given your enthusiasm for radical change here’s a radical idea for you – and it’s far more radical than anything Lloyd George envisaged even before he became an instrument of the british ruling class and betrayed everything he ever believed in – give wales the same powers over its own affairs that every other country in the world enjoys. It’s called independence.

  8. The term Senedd refers to the building not the institution Dafydd Ellis Thomas (bless his cotton ermine robes) sneaked that past Rhodri Morgan to create the myth of political gravitas, The Assembly is a coven of third rate parish councillors selected by a dynastic list system which tops up a party selected constituency group of 40. More AM; haven’t we suffered enough!

  9. A parliamentary system is always the best.
    A presidential system would put too much power in the centre.
    Wales could have a 2 chamber system as a power check, this 2nd house could be made up from nominated elected representatives from local government (as it is in Germany).

    The only view in favour of a Welsh president is that it could, as it is in Catalonia, be a rallying point for the independence movement, but that is only if we can get an independence minded person elected !

    • CambroUiDunlainge

      I don’t think Puidgemont is as much as rallying point as we may think – Junqueras is very, very popular too… and its not clear how well the two parties are getting along. I don’t think its as bad as the media is suggesting (undermining) but there’s obviously something. But there are those who believe this is something we do as a society in a democratic fashion so… we’ll see how that goes i suppose.

      • Red Dragon Jim

        Sorry but this is doing my head in. I’ve commented on this before. Catalonia doesn’t directly elect a President. It’s just their version of a Prime Minister. He/she becomes President of the Generalitat (government). Elected by Parliament from MPs.

        This is merely calling for us to rename the Prif Weinidog as President. Fine, but it would make no difference.

        • I agree, Jim. It does my head in too. Thanks for getting there first with the correction!

          I might also add that a lot of people who wade in on this topic looking for examples from overseas, including Ernest, don’t seem to understand how the German Bundesrat (or Federal Council) actually functions either.

  10. The Welsh assembly needs many more members. Both Scotland and N Ireland have over 100. With most of the Labour ASs already involved as Ministers, whips, officers and committee chairs there is no Labour backbench scrutiny. In fact they’ve had to include a Lib Dem and a former Plaid AS and MP into the Ministerial team. As the powers increase this year, and the budget controlled increases we really need more ASs to scrutinise this National Assembly. Do it soon.

  11. I would endorse the comments made here, an executive presidency is not what we need, though it would reduce the need for more Assembly members as the executive could wholly be appointed by the president from outside the Assembly and thus all Assembly members would act as the scrutineers of the executive. I am reluctant to put the power of any executive in the hands of one person, its the concentration of power that unnerves me. Going back to Julius Caesar, his dictatorship and the ensuing civil war ended the collegiate system of power sharing and checks and balances that underpinned the Roman Republic. An executive presidency would end the collegiate nature of our executive and diminish the accountability of the executive the the legislature, as the executive, in the person of the president, would have their own separate mandate to govern.

    The article is an interesting thought experiment and worth exploring but I think the pitfalls outweigh any advantages.

  12. This is a good analysis of the paralysis at the heart of Welsh political life because of the stranglehold of Welsh Labour and their bureaucratic and managerial outlook.

    The author is also right to allude to the complete disconnect between the Bay and its assorted politicians and the people and communities of Wales.

    However, I don’t think that a top down notion of a President will do anything to really change things to be honest. It will be just another figure from amongst the great and good, supping from the trough. Cmon, we all know that is what would happen.

    No, change has to come from below. Why should Wales be in the hands of 60 politicos anyway? We need to develop a much more active and participatory democracy where much more people can have a say how things are to be here.

    Adam Price was very voluble at one point with his idea of developing a digital democracy in Wales, where members of the public could have a direct input into the decision making process in different ways. What’s happened to that bright idea?

    This is where we need to go to develop our fledgling democracy not reverting back to this moribund idea that one man/woman could sort out all our travails.

  13. May an Englishman living in England comment? If I need a qualification, is it enough that one of my great-grandmothers and my late wife were Welsh? I oppose directly elected Mayors with executive powers, because I think that system gives too much power to one person and, of course, one person cannot be elected proportionately. For the same reason, I would oppose a directly elected Welsh President with executive powers.

  14. Jonathan Edwards Sir Benfro (+North Carolina)

    Please pay attention at the back! This is a civics lesson.
    Malinosa – you are correct in mentioning the poor quality of the present offer. I hope you don’t just want to sweep them away, Replace them, yes.
    Lyn Thomas – have you hear of checks and balances ie the American system (pretty much the standard world system outside the British Commonwealth? Yes the Executive President /Governor is directly elected. But there are checks. His budget is set by the lawmakers. They have committees which scrutinise. His appointments can be “by and with the consent”. No, this does not lead to a smaller legislature. But it does lead to parliaments which sit much less often which may be cheaper. In North Carolina, 3 times the size of Wales, they meet a lot in year 1 (when they set the Budget) but not often in plenary in year 2 (when they are mostly scrutinising). Then there’s another election. Works a treat. (By the way – GOT to be bicameral. Don’t buy the Westminster myth. Check and balance and, no, it only gums the thing up if people allow it.
    Cymru Rydd – you are spot on. This all has to come from the bottom up. Guess what – in the US they have the phrase “We the People…” On the 4th July, in deference to my Southern Belle wife I wear a shirt with these words on it. In civics terms, sovereignty is NOT with the Parliament – which people think sounds so great in the UK. Sovereignty is with the people. Sounds even better, surely, unless you are Jacob Rees Mogg, John Redwood or the Queen, or a member of the Labour party in Wales.
    Leadership: Lloyd George was like a lot of leaders who come from small units. He started off pro the unit ie for Welsh Home Rule. But given the UK system and circumstances – Welsh outnumbered 20:1, he dropped it. Understandable in his terms. Napoieon was the same over Corsica – did you know that? It happens.
    But not to everyone. In Wales we had better be careful that if a Welsh leader appears we do not shackle him or her with the Welsh Lobster syndrome and drag him or her back down in. The attacks will be unceasing. There will be complaints of harassment – the 2018 weapon of choice etc etc.
    But Leaders can cope with this sort of thing. They are few in number and that’s why we honour Glyndwr, say, even now.

  15. I have heard of checks and balances, but I much prefer a parliamentary system than creating a system with divided and separate mandates – and the checks and balances coming from an executive dependent on the support of the legislature

  16. Jonathan Edwards Sir Benfro (+North Carolina)

    Ok, Lyn Thomas lets look more closely.
    “checks and balances coming from an executive dependent on the support of the legislature”.
    So a strong executive is a good thing? Yes, that’s the British theory based on the Queen’s government getting bogged down if it is trammelled too much by whatever. Based historically on the notion of strong kings like Edward I, Henry V and Henry VIII being a good thing, with Elizabeth I, Victoria and Elizabeth II being the long-lived cuddly versions. So this good strong executive must be supported. By what? A docile and adoring populace? Yes, that’s one. A docile Party, the ambition of whose members is to get into the executive? Yes, that’s the other thing the UK has. On this view the UK does not want the executive to be accountable, Oh No! So in the UK its not. And one of the worst things about modern Britain, according to many, is that its people got given a proper Bill Rights in the European Convention, even though Brits wrote most of it.
    “parliamentary system”
    What system? The UK has a top-down make-it-up-as-you-go-along mish mash based on a medieval monarchy. It includes nonsense like the Sewell Convention for heaven’s sake. We have no real protection of the press. Its people are Subjects not Citizens. Noone else in the world outside the British Commonwealth has seen fit to copy it. It is a rubbish system. The only reason that the UK remains a reasonably civilised place is that most of the time the people like order not disorder, have a sense of humour, a vague sense of fairness, and are used to muddling through. And a deep culture including Edward Lear, Shakespeare and so on. And they LOVE fighting wars, which is also good for unity and discipline.
    “divided and separate mandates”
    Oh, that sounds bad. “Divided” is never good. “Separate” sounds like something bad is going to happen. England certainly does like rallying round a leader, even ones like Theresa May or the Queen. Unlike the Welsh who of course are back-stabbers, having been conquered.
    But a lot of British people spent a lot of time looking at their system and analysing it and devising a better one. They got a better system. It has worked 51 times over and noone has suggested changing it. Yes, mostly British people devised the written Constitution used by 50 US states and the Federal one because their/your “parliamentary system” was such rubbish.
    When the Welsh eventually get round to calling a Convention and devising their own written Constitution they must have “checks and balances”: Bicameral Parliament which does the Budget and makes laws. Separation of powers ie directly elected President/Governnor. Constitutional protection for Judges.
    I don’t suppose our Welsh Constitution will have a Right to bear Arms but otherwise it might well look like the Constitution of (say) North Carolina, a very well run State. Or the Irish one would be fine. But not – not – what we have now.
    Or Lyn Thomas, do you think that 350m Americans in 50 different States have got it wrong for all of 250 years? Plus most other modern democracies? That they are all out of step except for the UK?
    Do yourself a favour, Lyn, get yourself a Welsh Convention to devise a properly run Wales.

  17. I really don’t want to get into a long dispute with you, you like a strong executive presidency with a separate mandate to govern and a legislature that plays no part in administration. Fine, its a valid view point but not one that I share. I dislike strong executives and certainly reject the concept of executive mayors that England has as a suitable model. We have very different ideas as to where the balance of power should reside. Actually I like the idea of the head of state being a president, just not an executive one. The Irish or Slovenian examples would work well in my view. In both cases the executive is dependent on support of the legislature. All systems should have an adequate system of checks and balances, I think that is one of the great failings of the UK system that it lacks that, with an over powerful executive deriving its power from that of the crown.

  18. “As we have seen most recently in France, as well as in US states like California and New York dynamic figures are more willing to come forward to run a presidential or gubernatorial executive that can co-exist successfully with a legislature (preferably proportionally elected).”

    What a muddled attempt to find an international template to follow. Start a sentence by advocating the the French or Californian system, but by the end of the same sentence decide it’s important to denounce the way those places’ legislatures are elected. Have I understood that right?

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