Senedd abolitionists don’t understand why devolution happened
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
Senedd abolitionists would have you believe that once upon a time there was a happy and wonderful place called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Well, that is until a New Labour government led by Tony Blair got bored one day and decided, just for the hell of it, to do a bit of what pantomime toff, Jacob Rees-Mogg refers to as “constitutional tinkering”, where it inexplicably gave Wales and Scotland a strictly limited amount of autonomy.
According to the narrative peddled by hard-line unionists, the devolved nations have, rather shockingly, had the temerity to use this autonomy to make some of their own decisions. Yes, that’s right, they’ve decided to use the power to make their own laws to, well, make some of their own laws. They have not accepted that they are incapable of doing so. Rather rudely they have decided not to follow Westminster like nodding dogs on every matter. They labour under this absurd notion that the citizens of a nation should be able to choose their own elected representatives who then go on to make decisions on their behalf. I know. Crazy right?
Not only that, but nasty nationalists, or separatists even, have decided they want more power to make their own decisions, and the citizens of these nations are actually starting to believe this is a good idea. They have acquired the uncharitable habit of demanding better for their citizens and pointing out where the Westminster establishment falls short.
Now this just will not do. You see, it threatens to break up what is, despite the dysfunction, incompetence, callousness, greed, and corruption of the ruling class, the bestest and greatest nation in the history of the Earth, perhaps even the universe. If Carlsberg did nation states and so on. Unfortunately for the purveyors of this narrative, like Carlsberg, Westminster’s ruling class overrates itself somewhat.
Some are starting to believe that the answer to this conundrum of the devolved nations wanting more control over their own laws is to take away the limited control they already have. Genius. 4D chess at its finest guys, really. Abolish their parliaments, put them back in their box, the genie can be scooped up and stuck back in the bottle. Even if you could get away with it in Wales, it would never wash in Scotland. It would be like Darth Vader vanquishing Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Those who push this anti-Senedd narrative fail to understand what caused devolution in the first place.
Power was not devolved just for the hell of it. It was devolved because of real demands for more autonomy in Wales and especially in Scotland. This demand was created by the enormous democratic deficit that existed. Wales has mostly been ruled from Westminster by a government it hasn’t once voted for. Devolution was a teenie tiny step towards rectifying that.
Admittedly responding to the demands of the electorate is somewhat of an alien concept to many who inhabit the hallowed halls of what they like to refer to as the ‘mother of parliaments’, but nevertheless, it is not without merit. Some might even call it democracy.
This demand has been turbocharged by the mistreatment by and the rank incompetence of the Westminster establishment.
Thatcherism really got the ball rolling. Whole communities in both Wales and Scotland were pushed into abject poverty, many of which still have not recovered. Scotland had its oil revenues nicked for good measure. This is a bit of a blind spot for those who view Thatcherism as some sort of unalloyed good. It is characterised by a lack of empathy not uncommon within the ruling class. It may have been hunky dory for their lot. But it was neither hunky nor dory for a great many others. Those on the wrong end of a cudgel, have not forgotten what they saw and what they felt.
Before that, the demand for devolution in Wales was not particularly strong. In the 1979 referendum held by the Labour government of Jim Callaghan, a whopping 79.74 per cent voted against the establishment of an assembly. Fast forward to 1997 and the picture had markedly changed. The referendum to create what was the Welsh Assembly may have only been won by the tiniest of margins, 50.30 per cent to 49.70 per cent. But the difference between that and 1979 is nonetheless striking. Following that we had a referendum on further powers that was won by a much heftier margin of 63.49 per cent to 36.51 per cent.
Devolution came to be viewed in the Labour stronghold of Wales and what was the Labour stronghold of Scotland, as a bulwark against the destructive vagaries of Tory rule.
Unfortunately, these bulwarks have been nowhere near sturdy enough. In fact, they are rather easily breached. They were not strong enough to protect the citizens of Wales and Scotland from terrible austerity. The devolved administrations could not prevent their service women and men being sent to war with Iraq. Scotland was powerless to stop Westminster dragging it out of the EU against its will. The Internal Market Act has demonstrated that the powers of the Senedd can easily be taken away without consent.
The devolved administrations have been able to mitigate some of the damage wrought by Westminster during the pandemic. But they have still been undermined in their attempts to tackle the deadly virus, due in no small part to the fact that Westminster still controls the money. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak refused to help Wales out when it went into the firebreak lockdown in the autumn. It did not go unnoticed, and it will not be easily forgotten either.
The world-leading United Kingdom has one of the worst records on tacking Covid-19 in the world. Boris Johnson has overseen more than a 100,000. The joke Prime Minister stopped being funny a long time ago. Tories are supposedly good at managing the economy, but they’ve messed that up too – big time.
Callous and capricious mismanagement of this nature is not only driving up support for more devolution, but for independence too. Unionists are doing more to highlights the merits of secession than YesCymru ever could. Is it any wonder that distrust in Westminster institutions has grown, not abated?
If the Westminster establishment wants to reduce demands for increased autonomy it should stop badly screwing things up. Devolving powers has never been the problem. It has been the reaction to the problem, which is the gross mismanagement brought about by the overcentralised nature of the British state. On its current trajectory, the unionist car is heading straight into a wall. Hard-line unionists have mistaken the accelerator for the break.