The Devolution Generation: Growing up knowing nothing but, yet little about, devolved Wales

Children at the Senedd. Picture by National Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Bethan Phillips

I’m quite envious that I missed the historic moment when Wales became a devolved nation following the 1997 Referendum. I’m also very grateful to those who worked so hard to ensure it became a reality.

The headlines, parties and photographs demonstrate how significant this moment was for Wales and its people.

18th September 1997 seems to be one of those moments where everyone knew where they were and what they were doing when the result came in.

I wish I could tell you what I was up to in 1997, but I was only three years old! I’m part of a generation that has grown up knowing nothing but a devolved Wales.

I may not be able to relate to what happened before and immediately after but I, like many others, have a unique and singular view of devolution.

I don’t see the Welsh Assembly through the lens of a historic celebratory moment – how could I? I was too late for the party and this is the only Wales I know.

For people of my age, it’s not having a Welsh Assembly that seems unfathomable, but it not being there. It’s an inseparable part of Welsh democracy.

Ignorance

However, while I’ve grown up knowing nothing but a devolved Wales, I’ve also grown up knowing very little about it.

No one at school or college taught me or my fellow pupils what the Welsh Assembly did or what powers it had.

Then suddenly, last year, I was able to legally vote in a system I had grown up in that I knew surprisingly little about!

First time voters of the ‘2016 generation’ have had a General Election, one Assembly Election, one EU Referendum and local council elections in the space of two years.

We suddenly had to work out the difference between Constituency and Regional Assembly Members, and what a Police and Crime Commissioner was.

Not to mention working out the difference between the Senedd, Welsh Government, Westminster and UK Government.

I’m starting to suspect however that there is nothing accidental about my ignorance of these matters.

I suspect that the Welsh Establishment in the guise of the Labour Party is perfectly content with our confusion about who does what.

After all, how can the political status quo be challenged effectively if we don’t know who’s in charge?

I grew up thinking of the Labour as the party that protect us, the working class, from the Tories at Westminster.

However, as I’ve become more interested in politics my view has changed. I’ve understood more and more that a lot of the problems I see in my community are Labour’s responsibility.

The General Election in July saw a surge of support for Labour from young voters inspired by Corbyn’s message on issues such as health and education.

Many people of my generation do not grasp the relationship between the Senedd and Westminster and so do not understand that health, education and other issues are devolved.

This lack of information allows Welsh Labour to get away with the mismanagement of public funds, such as the Lisvane Land Deal. But if challenged on any aspect of their failure to improve Wales they simply say: it’s the UK Tory Government’s fault.

While Corbyn claims Labour is the ‘Party for the many’ and opposes the cruel Tory UK Government cuts, Welsh Labour increases student fees and votes to keep zero hour contracts in place. While Corbyn complains about the Tories’ education system, Wales performs worse in health and has slipped further down the PISA ratings.

While Corbyn complains about the Tories’ education system, Wales performs worse in health and has slipped further down the PISA ratings.

While Jeremy Corbyn calls for things in principle, his party does the very opposite in practice. While Jeremy Corbyn gains popularity in a UK wide context, people in Wales do not realise that his party is in power here.

Hope

I was amazed and proud when I found out I’ve grown up in the area with the highest ‘Yes’ votes in Wales (Neath Port Talbot, where 66.6% backed devolution).

Though, stumbling across this statistic was somewhat disappointing considering a growing neglect in the area, where opportunities are limited and unemployment is high.

There’s no denying I’ve benefited from aspects of devolution. I have experienced cheaper tuition fees, free prescriptions, the smoking ban (which I particularly welcomed as a young Cardiff City football fan) and an environmentally friendly 5p charge on plastic bags that set Wales aside from the rest of the UK.

However, for me, devolution has not gone far enough in delivering for the people of Wales; not least in communities like my own.

I now feel that this is because of an incompetent Welsh Labour Government that is more interested in managing decline than passing laws that could change people’s lives.

Using a football analogy, Cardiff Bay seems like a home ground for the Labour Party. They are far too comfortable there. Post-war Wales has become a Labour hegemony and that’s certainly apparent in Cardiff Bay.

Now more than ever, Wales needs a sovereign Parliament – a group of elected representatives who will serve our needs; not a home-grown establishment residing in the Bay Bubble.

The Welsh Government receive a £17bn budget from Westminster and it is fundamental that this money is spent wisely and effectively across Wales.

My dream Wales would be one that is a proud meritocracy, employing those who are capable of doing the job as opposed those in the inner circle.

My dream Wales would be one that celebrates its sovereignty and takes the opportunities available via devolution to change lives.

The formation of the Welsh Assembly was celebrated like a pillar of hope; a new world; an opportunity for the people of Wales to shape part of their own destiny.

It is pivotal that the Welsh Labour Government are held to account to serve us; the people of Wales; a sovereign Wales.

For us who have grown up in a devolved Wales, devolution is not and end in itself. We want more.

There is no denying that I have benefited from elements of devolution and I will be forever grateful to those who campaigned for a Welsh Assembly.

However, I know nothing but devolution and in my opinion, the process has far from reached its potential.

We must make the most of an institution that was celebrated to deliver promise and progressive change to all of our lives.

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