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Review: The impact of devolution in Wales – Essays edited by Jane Williams and Aled Eirug

06 Nov 2022 20 minute read
The Impact of Devolution in Wales: Social Democracy with a Welsh Stripe? is published by University of Wales Press

Sarah Tanburn

Rhodri Morgan’s long shadow still looms over Welsh policy making and analysis, amply demonstrated by this book of essays due out shortly from University of Wales Press. The sub-title is Social Democracy with a Welsh Stripe and it is intended to accompany Rhodri Morgan’s personal memoir.

The distinguished collection of contributors explore the notion of a distinctive Welsh approach to policy without any insistence on, even an avoidance of, nationalism and deeply rooted in the evolution of Welsh structures and governance since 1999.

Across health, education, development and international relations, equalities and rights, the essays asks if such a stripe can be distinguished in key policy areas, and what difference it has made to the lives of people in Wales.

Geraint Talfan Davies gives the relevant warning that:

‘commentary on devolution in Wales during those first two decades tends to fall into one of two categories: patient understanding of the growth of a fragile new institution … and less patient frustration that the institution’s achievements have not been sufficiently impressive and radical, and have not realised the highest hopes that were placed in it by its proponents.

Other reviewers might be more embedded in Welsh politics than I am, and so, besides falling into one of these traps, be more minded to comment on this detail or that of events in the last twenty years.

Instead, I shall focus on what lessons might be taken from the book as a whole, and what that might suggest for the future.

Overall this is an elegant and nuanced study, filled with detailed knowledge and very well referenced. Any serious student of Welsh politics should have it on their shelves. Nonetheless, I would like to see the sequel, a request of which more below.

From multi-level evolution to disruption for its own sake

It is particularly important to note issues of timing, while recognising that the referendum was not ‘year zero’ for distinctively Welsh policy development, as the history of promoting Cymraeg, of developing an holistic approach to policy or to exporting Welsh culture all illustrate.

The first decade of devolution took place with a Labour government in Westminster, relatively beneficent public spending regimes and ongoing increases in the budget for the Wales Assembly Government.

The narrow majority in the first referendum put pressure on those early representatives to demonstrate genuine improvement from devolution, but they could work in relative partnership with Westminster and considerable stability.

Throughout Morgan’s tenure as First Minister he dealt with just two prime ministers and two chancellors in Blair, Brown and Darling. By comparison, in four years Mark Drakeford is on his fourth PM and fifth Chancellor. Of these, the longest Downing Street resident is Sunak, despite only entering Parliament seven years ago.

The second decade brought Osborne’s austerity to Westminster and a very different attitude to devolution. Of course, we have also had the 2016 referendum and the increasing turbulence which has followed. In his article on sustainable development, Terry Marsden accurately describes this as a move from multi-level to disruptive governance.

When I wrote Wales, the United Kingdom and Europe in 2013, it was indeed a different age, even given the centralising impact of global financial collapse and the consequent hit on European regionalism.

The disruption has of course accelerated: when Marsden wrote this essay, Johnson seemed secure in No. 10 and the nightmare of Truss’s ‘fiscal event’ was not even imagined.

Despite the enormous challenges of such disruption, there is clearly an electoral appetite for it, whether in the vote to leave the EU or the Welsh support for Truss herself (including from the newly appointed Welsh Secretary).

Marsden is writing specifically about a proper alignment of food policy, greater economic equity, and addressing environmental catastrophe, but his words apply to many other areas of policy development:

‘The analysis and recommendations have demonstrated the need to find collective hope and energy in exploring the real paradoxes that this disruptive governance also creates.

These are opportunities to re-set and redesign former sectoral, fragmented and unevenly devolved policies and competences in ways that meet now the wider [sustainable development and climate change] goals our international, as well as national, public commitments demand….

That is what present and future generations will expect of today’s governments, and that is what is embedded in Wales’s Well Being of Future Generations Act. .. This is what the onset of disruptive governance is in part telling us, and why its critical analysis both in the UK and beyond is of vital importance in … an enlivened debate about participative and devolved forms of effective democratic governance.’

The book as a whole demonstrates that global discontinuities, from climate crisis to ongoing technological revolution, play out in institutions and governance, and that the ways policy makers and legislators respond will matter for people’s everyday lives and long term futures.

Marsden and, to a lesser extent, Geraint Talfan Davies point both to the ambition for disruption explicit in narratives from Farage to Kwarteng and to the opportunities it might represent for Wales.

While the current Welsh Government has been applauded for calmness during Covid, and (at least in that context) prioritising communication which treats the public like adults, the world around us is in upheaval: are the authorities in Cardiff Bay willing, able and ready to address that reality?

In a range of proposals which sometimes smack of rearranging the deck chairs of government rather than fundamentally addressing the purpose of the voyage, the importance of reinstating a Minister for International Affairs stands out.

If Wales is to assert its position as a mature, functioning country capable of considerable impact despite the difficulties in London, this is a significant and relatively straightforward step.

Wales does have levers, from the world-leading Wellbeing Act, to the disproportionate reach of our sport and culture, to our role in agri-business but we are not yet using them sufficiently. A number of common themes across these policy essays suggest why.

A pass mark, but could do better

Every author in this volume identifies a Welsh stripe in the area of policy they examine, the much touted clear red water between Westminster policy and Cardiff.

The standout is of course the Wellbeing Act, but we can also highlight, for example, basing children’s engagement and services on rights, a distinctive approach to qualifications and the ongoing resistance to marketisation in health or schools.

In each area, there is plenty of evidence of innovation and value-driven development in domestic policy.

It is also interesting to note the comparisons used both by these analysts and by politicians. Despite the media insistence on comparisons with our wealthy neighbour, there are better places to look, small countries like Singapore, Finland and Czechia. Yet the researchers themselves sometimes do not look far enough.

There are over 8 million Catalan speakers spread across Spain, France, Italy and Andorra, for example. Te Reo Māori, another poster child for linguistic resurgence, has just 183,000 speakers, almost all in one administration. Wide-reaching internationalism in policy and outlook can only bolster Welsh innovation.

There are identified successes, not least the Welsh approach to the UK’s withdrawal from the Europe-wide Erasmus scheme encouraging student exchange and building collaborations. Geraint Talfan Davies says:

‘Taken together, the Erasmus replacement scheme and the Global Wales initiative present a case par excellence of a devolved administration pushing its way further into the international arena from the base of its devolved powers.

We can also recognise the importance of the Welsh approach to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Jane Sullivan summarises the first decade’s adoption of the Convention by saying:

‘[P]romotion of child rights-aligned policies played to strengths within the Assembly at a time when Welsh devolution was often seen as the weaker sibling of devolution elsewhere in the UK.

It provided an opportunity to demonstrate that Welsh devolution enabled distinct, principled policy developed through collaboration and consensus, not only between political parties but also with voluntary and statutory sectors and with children and young people themselves.

And it offered positive exposure on the world stage: an opportunity to present Welsh innovation in policy and law reform in favourable contrast to other countries in the UK, especially England, and the world.’

Her words show the mixture of motivations that influence more than one policy arena: the importance of policy driven by values of participation and justice, the drive to promote the benefits of self-determination, the ambition for cross-sector and multiparty consensus and the desire to be seen on the world stage.

Despite these laudable ambitions, a common thread in these studies is the recognition that innovative thinking has not been matched by life-changing delivery, particularly for many of our most disadvantaged children and young people.

Inevitably, such failures are normally attributed to external lacks – of power, resources, or even media shortcomings.

These of course are real. In addition, though, these analyses suggest three key internal barriers: a failure to join plans up and take a bold, holistic approach to sustained change; insufficient rigour in governance structures and, perhaps most of all, the group think engendered by a closed circle of so-called partnership and inward-looking policy making.

Making the big leaps

‘Boldness’ has gained something of a bad reputation in recent months, yet it must be admitted that big changes need both the vision of what our society can be, and the rigorous decision making needed to carry it through. And in a disrupting world context, clear vision needs to be accompanied by evidence-based, sustained interventions undertaken within a robust governance framework.

Children living in poverty are of course particularly vulnerable. Jane Williams reminds us that:

Wales has continued to have the highest percentage rates in the UK of relative income poverty for all age groups.  Of all age groups, children are most likely to be in relative income poverty and children in lone parent and larger families, some BAME families, workless households and in households with a disabled adult or child are disproportionately affected. 

Pre-COVID-19 data covering the periods 2015–18 show 29 per cent of children in Wales living in relative income poverty, and by reference to multiple indicators, children in poor families were on average living further below the poverty line and experiencing poorer outcomes in 2018 than in 2013.

The impact of COVID-19 has yet to be fully appreciated, but evidence suggests that it has worsened and will continue to worsen the situation, specifically exacerbating pre-existing inequalities. … [I]t remains the case that pupils in receipt of free school meals scored lower and school exclusions, which increased in a 4-year period from 2015, disproportionately affect children from poorer backgrounds, additional learning needs and some protected characteristics and the rate of permanent exclusions doubled between 2014/15 and 2017/18 and has continued to increase.

A sobering statistic is that at the end of the ‘well-being’ decade in Welsh policy, pupils in Wales were less satisfied with their lives than the OECD average, more likely to feel miserable and worried, and less likely to feel joyful, cheerful or proud.

Such figures make sobering reading indeed.

Thus In considering educational achievement, there is a clear need to reduce (rather than re-arrange) the number of organisations involved in setting policy but not in actually educating children, while also significantly enhancing the capacity of educators and school leaders.

There have been numerous efforts in this direction, yet as David Egan makes clear, there is still a great deal of talk and not enough real outcomes in classrooms.

By comparison, Williams points to recent actions addressing poverty taken by Welsh government during the COVID-19 pandemic, including increasing benefits take-up, progression of support such as free school meals, period products and access to cultural and leisure activities, alongside pupil development grant and better public transport access for young people.

Various forms of discretionary assistance and financial advice services are being enhanced. It is interesting that housing issues are omitted from this list and indeed from the whole book. It is a crucial area for Wales and one where almost all relevant policy is devolved, unlike control over most benefits.

The latest plan does include milestones and data collection, essential if policy is to learn from what works rather than starting from scratch in each political cycle.

Such information will enable policy-makers to see if such direct interventions, alongside praiseworthy, rights-based actions, really make a difference to those who need it most, improving educational outcomes and life chances by a clear focus on the front line rather than organisational musical chairs.

Scrutiny and capacity

Although not directly examined in this collection, there is widespread recognition of the need for a larger Senedd.

Despite cross-party agreement to the principle, there is still a lack of transparency about the process and a confused approach to creating the electoral lists, as Professor Laura McAllister set out in a recent article for the Constitution Unit of UCL.

At its heart, there is a lack of scrutiny of the work of the executive, and insufficient separation of powers between that executive and the legislature.

Wales is of course dominated almost exclusively by Labour, despite various partnerships with Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats.

However one individual might vote, there are obvious risks to such long-standing control, which should be matched by an emphasis on probity, openness and accountability. Instead, as these analysts show, the opposite is true.

To give one example, in the detailed implementation of the Government of Wales Act, responsibility for both the Childrens’ Commissioner and Funky Dragon (predecessor to Young Wales and ultimately the Welsh Youth Parliament) went not to the legislature (now the Senedd) but to the executive. Williams says:

‘This was odd, because both functions, one statutory and one discretionary, were purposed towards holding the executive to account, which would have been better aligned with the purpose of the parliamentary function in the evolving Welsh constitution.’

In general, this chimes with a weak process of scrutinising emerging legislation, with Senedd Committees hugely overstretched by the current raft of responsibilities, limited evidential capacity on existing impact and, perhaps most worrying, a failure of political leadership to even understand the importance of their transparency.

There are also ambiguities and inconsistencies, betraying an incomplete over-arching vision of what government is for. Williams again, speaking of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 noted the tendency

‘towards absorption of rights, with their internationally recognised, normative value, into the more malleable and less enforceable concept of well-being. … [T]he focus on well-being in the legislation as the cornerstone to good administration has led to the marginalisation of other foundations, e.g., human rights, equality, and specifically, principles of administrative justice that had been developed for Wales.’

There is a conflict between the much-admired sustainable development principles of WFG Act and how wellbeing may be seen to undermine the approach to embedded rights and more formal approaches to social justice.

We can spot a missed opportunity for a cross-governmental holistic approach in the ‘international strategy’ of late 2019. Geraint Talfan Davies spells out that

‘On the business and research front it wants to focus on three areas in particular: cyber security, compound semi-conductors and the creative industries. Some business people would have liked that list to be longer, but those who in the past have criticised the government for failing to prioritise can hardly complain.’

Despite his strictures on list-making, the strategy makes little or no reference to food production and agri-business, discussed in illuminating detail by Marsden. Tourism or energy are also fundamental to Wales’ development of a higher-value and resilient economy, yet they too are omitted.

Such mis-alignments matter in a government so consciously and determinedly driven by its values. If the Welsh stripe is to mean anything, it is in the values underpinning policy and governance and yet we can see here the ambiguities which in turn undermine boldness in delivery.

Longevity, partnerships and exclusion

Our third barrier to sustained change is evident almost in the cast list of the book itself. Many names echo from the 1980’s onwards.

The most prominent today is of course Mark Drakeford himself, the man largely responsible for the original notion of ‘clear red water.’ In addition to the evidence in this text, he said as much in his recent interview with Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart.

Adam Price is quoted by Eurig calling the creation of Welsh Labour a ‘master stroke’ which ‘stole Plaid’s intellectual territory.’ Clearly, however, the two men have found a way to work together in close partnership today.

This is further evidence, if it was needed, of the ambition of the political leadership of Wales to find collaboration and partnership to develop policy.

Elin Royles and Paul Chaney remind us that such notions have always been central to the campaign for and delivery of devolution. Their excellent essay examines the notions of ‘civil society’, ‘equalities’ and ‘inclusion’ as they have played out in practice, and draws some important conclusions.

They suggest, with good evidence, that in some arenas the devolved government has enabled more participative structures, exemplified by the considerably greater visibility and volume afforded to Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities today compared to the earlier, lamentable record and the failure to elect any ethnic minority candidate to the Assembly till 2007.

Highlighted here is also the growth in the number of women elected to the Senedd (a cause for congratulation in other essays too), although less attention is paid to the many other structural, sex-based inequalities in Wales, such as the very poor rate of convictions for sexual assault or rape.

Even when these are not devolved areas, the Senedd and Welsh Government must recognise the ongoing specific challenges facing women and people of colour, despite progress in representation.

I have noted above that a fully holistic approach has not been achieved, which undermines genuine understanding of plurality and inclusion.

Nonetheless, this commitment has led to a greater involvement of marginalised groups in policy making, not least through the use of the language and some of the techniques of ‘mainstreaming’ equalities, with a greater ‘system openness’ evident on many topics.

In this respect, there is indeed clear water both between Cardiff and Westminster and in the developments from the pre-devolution closed shop of the Welsh Office, with the language of equality now embedded in policy and legislation.

In addition, Royles and Chaney identify the early promotion of networks to facilitate engagement of under-represented groups, and the statutory equality duty contained in Welsh governance legislation. The latter remains unique amongst the devolved administrations and is robust both in its phasing and in much associated guidance.

Thus, from the beginning an apparent commitment to a stronger civil society, to more inclusion and to redressing historic inequality in representation, was baked in to the way the Assembly and now the Senedd expects to function.

The authors, however, also point to early concerns that some of the mechanisms put in place might have negative democratic consequences. Considerable funding has been invested in capacity development and policy networks intended to

‘facilitate activism and voluntary activity, and … to channel grass- roots views into the policy process as part of influencing policy-making.’

These concerns have materialised in some systemic failings. A study as early as 2007 found:

‘Increasing power inequalities between professionalised organisations with well-developed lobbying capabilities, both formally and informally, and those with limited resources. In addition to some organisations having the advantage of being better equipped to be represented in the political process than others, there was evidence that devolved institutions exacerbated existing inequalities. More exclusive relations were forged with some organisations, particularly through receipt of Welsh Government funding and support for policy networks.

..[T]he devolved government’s engagement methods lacked adequate recognition of the risks of creating more exclusive relations that could result in issues regarding the representativeness of organisations, increasing inequalities within civil society with repercussions for the relative autonomy of organisations, including challenging their propensity to scrutinise government as expected in a vibrant democracy.‘ (Emphases mine)

The clear risk is that in paying some organisations to develop robust networks to represent and engage specific marginalised communities, they become lobby agencies for particular agendas.

Because the Senedd is so stretched, those lobbying agencies become the source (and in some cases the author) of policy documents ostensibly the property of Welsh Government itself.

Those partnerships, originally created to promote diversity and inclusion become the originators and endorsers of specific interests from which contrary voices may be actively excluded.

This challenge is borne out by research. The authors cite Rebecca Rumbul’s study of scrutiny in Wales, arguing that activist citizens outside the charmed circle of funded partners feel:

‘disengaged, disillusioned and disregarded by the political and public sector institutions in Wales, … Of particular concern were assertions of ‘institutional lethargy’ on the part of WG in its approach to broadening the participation of civil society in policy development and delivery beyond the ‘usual suspects’.’

As one outside that circle, I have seen these mechanisms operate across diverse topics, from forestry ownership to sex-based rights to the choice of a dignified death.

Informed voices who do not adhere to the agenda of established and funded partners find it impossible to gain even a basic audience with Welsh Government representatives. In effect, criticism of the pre-determined lobby agenda is silenced.

This is a sore failing in a maturing social democracy. Closed minds and suppression of dissent can only inhibit sustainable delivery and count against the presumed success of a distinctive Welsh approach to inclusion and social justice.

As Williams concludes, these are:

‘key ongoing challenges in realising the vision of social democracy with a Welsh stripe; particularly addressing … the need for sustained efforts to enable a critical, diverse and independent civil society as an essential ingredient of a revitalised and healthy Welsh democracy.‘

So what about that sequel?

This structured and important research shows clearly Wales has all the intellectual capacity to create a genuinely rooted, imaginative and committed government, even when that brainpower is stymied by shortage of resources for evidence and too small a Senedd.

Yet delivery is frustrated and remains timid. These essays suggest a cross-Senedd lack of boldness and holistic vision. They reveal a charmed inner circle engaged in group-think and a lack of serious challenge or scrutiny. These are all solid but demountable barriers to ambition.

A worthy sequel to this book would be an review of routes to overcoming those barriers. It would be well evidenced but accessible to the lay reader. Such a book would offer government tools to open up to robust debate, trusting all its citizens to have a voice.

It would encourage everyone involved in policy to understand each other’s constraints and drivers – from the interaction of family farms with the survival of the Welsh language, to the importance of railway management to women’s incomes.

And it would offer concerned citizens and activists the promise that Welsh Government, whatever its party dominance, has a meaningful commitment to improving the participation, environment and lives of everyone in Wales.

I look forward to the day I can shelve such a volume alongside this collection.

The Impact of Devolution in Wales: Social Democracy with a Welsh Stripe? is published by University of Wales Press and available here or from good bookshops

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