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Blame a failing union, not devolution, for Wales’ problems

11 Sep 2018 6 minute read
Terraced housing in the Rhondda Valley. Picture by Ian James (CC BY 2.0)

Philip Jones

Walk down any street in any town in Wales and ask random strangers for their views on the performance of the politicians working out of Cardiff Bay and the response will be, at best, lukewarm.

At worst, you’ll be asked what the politicians actually do in that big expensive slate and glass construction on the waterfront. You’ll also hear some people making it very clear just what a waste of time and money they think devolution has been.

Like many others I voted for devolution in 1997 with pretty much boundless enthusiasm. At last, I thought, an end to the long line of UK government appointed Welsh secretaries behaving like latter day colonial governor generals.

Rule from London by lickspittle George Thomas and ridiculously out of touch Tories such as Nicholas Edwards and later the absurd John Redwood would be a thing of the past.

Unfortunately, with a lack of real powers, two decades later we find ourselves with boot licking monarchist and all round British jingo Alun Cairns still wielding plenty of power via the Wales Office.

The notion of devolution is, of course, a good one. To bring politics much closer to the people affected by decisions that matter most to them is inherently sensible.

However, along with a paucity of real power, one of the principal problems with devolution so far has been the dominance of Welsh Labour.

Welsh Labour are many things but what they are fundamentally is a British unionist party. When it comes to their loyalties, Westminster and the UK will always take priority over Wales and it’s been proved time and again.

Whether it’s the First Minister endorsing Tory bombing raids in Syria, inexplicably accepting mud from Hinckley Point nuclear power station, or waving through a deeply unpopular name change to the second Severn crossing, Welsh Labour have made it clear that ultimately they are little more than unionist establishment patsies.

When Wales really needs a voice, Welsh Labour are invariably lost for words. They are not alone. The Tories, Lib Dems, Greens and, of course UKIP, almost without fail put the union first at the Senedd.

Add to this the totally understandable impression amongst the public that most Assembly Members belong to a ‘Bay Bubble’ and that Cardiff ‘gets everything’ and it’s easy to see why devolution has been such a disappointment and has failed to inspire on just about every level.

So, why on earth should we fight tooth and nail to keep the Assembly and how do we make it better?


Well, for starters we do need to recall just how useless and ineffective direct rule from Westminster was. Does anyone really want to go back to the days of unelected quangos running Wales?

And who in their heart of hearts wants to see serious power returning to clueless London based Wales office buffoons – often with no links whatsoever to Wales and no understanding of the country?

As maligned as the Assembly is, we need to remember that it is still a whole lot more democratic than those pillars of the British establishment; the unelected House of Lords and monarchy.

That’s before we even get onto the huge and deeply unhealthy lobbying industry that exists around the UK parliament.

Yet we very rarely hear people in Wales suggesting we should abolish Westminster despite its abject failure to raise living standards for Welsh people over many generations.

If the Assembly has underperformed over two decades, central government rule from London has let Wales down for hundreds of years.


We need to face facts, the union has failed Wales and is continuing to fail it.

By just about every objective measure parts of Wales are consistently among the poorest areas in Northern Europe.

Even when Welsh coal was powering the Empire, precious little of that wealth trickled down to the people and when heavy industry departed successive UK governments left those people and places to rot.

The economy here has been extractive with infrastructure designed to draw wealth and talent out of the country. Even today, try taking a train between north and south Wales or vice versa and you’ll see precisely what I mean.

The recent Westminster decision to block the Swansea Bay lagoon, together with their cancellation of rail electrification in south Wales and the alarming decision to dump mud from an English nuclear power station on the shores of the Welsh capital should be a wake-up call to all of us.

And this against a backdrop of Welsh taxpayers money disappearing into a Crossrail and HS2 black hole – projects that will have absolutely no benefit to people on this side of the border.


There is also much work to be done by the elected members of the Senedd to alter voters’ perceptions that everything revolves around the Welsh capital.

The current Cardiff centric nature of Assembly business is damaging devolution and feeding historic inter-city/inter-regional tribal rivalries. This has to change.

So to do plans to increase the number of AM’s. With understandable voter apathy, frustration and disappointment directed towards the incumbents at Cardiff Bay, increasing their number would currently would be a monumental PR mistake.

We’ve also got to somehow chip away at the generations of conditioning from family, teachers, politicians and the media that has fuelled our inferiority complex.

Ask a Spaniard or a Greek or an Italian who should run their country and you know what the answer will be. Sadly, in Wales no such answer can be taken for granted.

For a multitude of reasons the Welsh are one of the only peoples on earth who almost instinctively feel they are better off being governed by another country.

It’s perverse. Frankly, we need to get off our bloody knees.

Brexit promises to quickly throw up all manner of new political dynamics right across the UK. Wales will be no exception.

There is every chance that in the near future a hard right, essentially English nationalist government will be in power at Westminster. That possibility would sound the death knell for the union.

Scotland would be the first to depart, with a united Ireland also looking like much more than the pipe dream it was a few years ago.

The fall out will most definitely be felt here too and it’ll threaten Welsh Labour’s dominance and call into question continuing political allegiances to a UK parliament that places Wales well down the pecking order.

So, there’s urgent work to be done to regain public confidence in devolution or Wales, historically the almost nation, will very soon find itself governed and generally regarded as little more than a quirky English county.

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