Cerith Rhys Jones
Over the weekend, the leader of the Brexit ‘party’ group in the Senedd, Mark Reckless, gave an interview to BBC Wales, in which he floated the idea of making the position of First Minister directly elected.
This would be a significant departure from the current system, in which Assembly Members – or Members of the Senedd, as they’re soon to be known – are elected either in constituencies and regions, and it is they who select from among their number the Senedd’s nominee to be First Minister.
During the course of the interview, Mr Reckless expanded on his suggestion, explaining that people want fewer – not more – politicians, and that a directly elected First Minister would take care of Wales’ interests, while the 40 Welsh Members of Parliament would perform the usual functions of the Senedd on a one-day-a-week basis.
What he didn’t say so clearly, but which became clear during the interview, is that his suggestion includes the abolition of the Senedd. We no longer need AMs, he contends, because MPs will take their place.
He referred to the current position of Welsh MPs: unable to vote on Welsh laws in devolved areas, and unable to vote on England-only laws.
It is true, of course, that Welsh MPs have difficult jobs. They speak for their constituents, but not in devolved areas. They are full Members of Parliament, and yet their authority does have territorial limits. Not to mention that it is an often thankless job. It’s not a job I would care to do.
But Mr Reckless’ suggestion raises myriad other questions:
1.) To whom would a directly elected First Minister be accountable? Would they answer to the people of Wales? Would they answer to Welsh Members of Parliament? Might they even answer to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Wales, or the Sovereign?
2.) What powers would this new First Minister have? Taking care of Wales’ interests is one thing, but would they retain the executive competence of the Welsh Ministers at present? Or would they simply be the ‘voice’ of Wales? If so, to whom would they make that voice known and by which process?
3.) What would be the purpose of a First Minister without a cabinet and without the machinery of government? The mistake implicit in the suggestion is that this new First Minister would be a lone wolf, unshackled from the burden of bureaucracy.
Such a position would be pointless. Without a cabinet, civil servants, and the machinery of government on which to rely, this First Minister would find it nigh on impossible to achieve anything.
4.) In the same vein, it’s worth including this question, because no clarity was forthcoming here either: would we even have a government? (A proper one, that is.) Or would this First Minister be some kind of ambassador? If so, remember that ambassadors answer to someone. They fly someone’s flag. They advance someone’s interest. The question is: whose?
5.) How could 40 Welsh MPs do the job of the Senedd on a one-day-a-week basis? We already have a Senedd where Members find it challenging to properly scrutinise the executive because of their limited time and resources. It simply is not realistic to suggest that this could be further compressed to just one day per week.
Would that one day include committee meetings? Public engagements? Outreach activities? Engagement with civil society? Legislative scrutiny? Scrutiny of the executive?
6.) Similarly, are we really to contend that Wales’ MPs could even spare the time? These, too, are busy people. On which day of the week do we suggest they should perform the functions of the Senedd? Which of their normal items of parliament or constituency business do we suggest they should abandon because of their new dual mandates?
Which committees should they resign from? Which interests should they refrain from pursuing because they now have to do the job of two legislatures? Given their additional responsibilities, would it not also be prudent to afford them additional pay?
7.) Would Welsh MPs sit in Cardiff when performing the functions of the Senedd? That would naturally incur costs. It would also mean additional travel and time away from home – and from their constituencies. Or would they instead sit in Westminster? That would represent the removal of Welsh democracy and representation further away from our communities.
8.) How would they discharge their functions as a quasi-distinct legislature? They would not be the Senedd. They would not even be a parliament. Rather, members of another parliament, performing a discrete set of responsibilities. How would they be held properly accountable in respect of these functions? How would their work be funded?
Would they be granted additional staff support? Would they operate in any organised fashion at all? Would they be some kind of super-charged Welsh Grand? Would MPs be dissolvable, or for that matter proroguable, in respect of their Senedd functions?
9.) Where would executive power now reside? At present, it resides with the Welsh Ministers. Presumably, this suggestion would do away with the Government of Wales Act 2006, and no clarity was forthcoming as to where executive power would sit under these new arrangements.
Would it return to the Wales Office? Be vested in the Prime Minister? In Parliament? Or in this new-look First Minister, accountable to no one, and with no resources to perform their executive duties?
10.) If the suggestion is that the new-look First Minister (perhaps even with a cabinet and machinery of government around them) produces law for the approval of Welsh MPs, what steps would be taken to avoid the whole process becoming a mere rubber-stamping charade? What would happen in the event of deadlock?
What would happen if, for example, a First Minister were elected from one party, and another party had a majority of Welsh MPs, and they made it their work to derail that First Minister’s agenda?
While it may be possible to construct a response to some, or even all, of these questions, the net result will always be the diminishment of Welsh democracy. This is achieved by the total destruction of executive competence, and the erosion of legislative scrutiny.
It is achieved by demoting those areas currently devolved to a one-day-a-week add-on to the responsibilities of the members of another parliament. It is achieved by the limiting of engagement and outreach with the public, civil society, and business.
This continues until we reach the point where we have found ourselves back under the direct rule of Westminster, with no respect for the fact that Wales is a distinct – de facto if not de jure – political, economic, cultural, and legal entity. This can be nothing but a disservice to the people of Wales and their communities.
I would contend that people who use their positions of influence, patronage, or privilege to advance suggestions such as this know full well the answers to the questions listed above. They know that their suggestions are unworkable, illogical, or impossible. They know that what they’re suggesting would mean a rollback on the idea that Wales should make its own laws.
They press on regardless because they also know that they have no intention of seeing their suggestions through. They are nothing but a distraction technique. A con. A ruse. Designed purposefully and carefully to reach people who, for one reason or another, feel unhappy or disengaged and convince them that this will be the panacea to their problems.
Few would deny that devolution has achieved all that it was promised to. Regardless of their partisan opinions, I have never met anyone involved with public life who believes that the Senedd and Welsh Government are perfect and that nothing needs to change.
But the answer to our problems is not to do away with the whole thing and place ourselves under the control of Westminster.
The challenges we face are complex. Populism does our citizens a disservice by claiming that they can be solved with simple measures. It doesn’t do that because it naively wishes there were such a thing as simple solutions, but because that very idea advances its own political agenda.
And it works. People do feel disempowered. They do feel disengaged. If someone shows you an easy way to fix that, you’d take it, wouldn’t you?
That is why it is the job of all of us – regardless of our own partisan views – who believe in the Senedd and in the devolution project to up our game.
Whether our long game is independence, federalism, or simply a cementing of the settlement we now have within the United Kingdom, being pro-devolution is not exclusive to one party or even one school of thought. And we, all of us, must speak with one voice.
Those principles we hold dear – that laws are better when they’re made closer to citizens, and that Wales can and should be treated as a country not by gift of Westminster but by right of itself – are under attack.
“The Assembly […] and the Welsh Government […] are a permanent part of the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements. […] It is declared that the Assembly and the Welsh Government are not to be abolished except on the basis of a decision of the people of Wales voting in a referendum.”
So says the very first clause of the Wales Act 2017.
In these times in which we live, we would be fools to allow ourselves to believe that that which we deem to be unimaginable is not possible. If the past four years have taught us anything, it is that we must consider the unfeasible to be feasible. The inconceivable to be conceivable. The absurd to be rational.
And in response, we must do better, aim higher, reach further, and seek to hold ourselves more robustly to account. We must call out those who seek to diminish our voices and those of our communities. And we must speak truth without compromise wherever we find misinformation.
Not as politicians, or civil society, or media, or business, or vested interests. But as citizens.
Do that, and we might – just – have a fighting chance.