Is it time Wales had a President?

Peter Birkinshaw (CC BY 2.0)

Ifan Morgan Jones

Welsh politics has a visibility problem. Survey after survey show that few can name more than a handful of politicians and most couldn’t tell you what powers the Welsh Assembly has.

As a result, Wales has what has been called a ‘democratic deficit’. The majority can’t make a fully informed choice whe voting, because they don’t know who is in charge of what.

Most people think, for example (according to a BBC/ICM poll conducted in 2014) that the UK Government oversees health and the Welsh Government in charge of policing.

The lack of a strong Welsh media usually gets the blame for this. And that is certainly a factor, something voluntary alternative news sources such as Nation.Cymru, Senedd Home and Desolation Radio hope to address.

But a piece of research published last week shows that it isn’t just Wales’ AMs which are largely anonymous – London has the same problem.

This is notable because on paper London has what Wales lacks – a vibrant media that keeps the population informed about what its politicians are up to.

This suggests that it may not just be a lack of media that is at fault here.

Part of the problem surely is that weak devolved legislatures lack political dynamism. This is particularly the case in Wales where the same party has been in charge for 18 years.

There just isn’t much of what was once derided as the ‘Punch and Judy’ of politics to maintain the viewers’ interest.

But, of course, devolution in London does get a lot more attention than Wales. Because one thing London does have that Wales does not is a separate and directly elected executive branch.

They have a Mayor. And I’m sure the majority not just in London but the UK would know that the current Mayor is Sadiq Khan, and would probably be able to name both his predecessors too.

There’s nothing unusual about this system where the legislative and executive branch are elected seperately. It’s used successfully in autonomous governments around the world.

The United States is a good example of such a federal system at work. Every state has a semi-autonomous legislature and a governor.

Australia is another good example. The other ‘south Wales’, New South Wales, has a governor as well.

And Catalonia, as we’re very aware at the moment, has a President who is the focus of great public attention.

There are three main reasons why I think Wales should emulate this system:

  1. Public interest

A single president-style figure is very good at maintaining the public’s interest.

The election to choose a Mayor of London gets a lot more attention than any other in the UK bar a General Election, and that’s because it’s a clear clash of personalities.

As any novelist or journalist will tell you, the best stories are about people. This is impossible when you have a cast of 60. But a presidential election puts the focus on two or three individuals.

It is also simpler to understand. The individual with the most number of votes wins. PR and STV may be fairer, and should remain in place for the legislative branch, but they’re difficult to explain to the lay voter.

  1. Conflict

The other advantage, which becomes apparent when we look at London’s Assembly and the United States’ state governors, is that the political affiliation of the executive and legislative branch can often be very different.

Boris Johnson faced an assembly where Labour was in power. In the United States, a Republican such as Arnold Schwarzenegger could get himself elected in deep-blue California.

The differences in political allegiance makes politics in these areas much more unpredictable and interesting, and ensures that no single party can rest on their oars without any real opposition for decades.

Even when the governor and senate belong to the same party, the system creates friction as they attempt to pull the agenda in different directions.

It would also keep politicians themselves on their toes. They would know that one day they may want to run for President, and that their political decisions would be pored over. There would be nowhere to hide.

Perhaps the reader won’t be particularly keen to see controversial ‘celebs’ such as Johnson, Trump or Schwarzenegger in positions of power in Wales.

But the choice of President would of course be up to the people of Wales. And if they choose a politician from outside of the current consensus, with very different ideas about how things should be run, all the better.

  1. Geographic balance

One other possible advantage of having a separate legislative branch is that it could be an opportunity to redress the north-south, east-west balance in Wales.

A President would be accountable to voters in all of Wales, and would know that every vote counts. They wouldn’t be able to depend on electoral fortresses in any part of the country, or ignore counties where they had little hope of winning a seat.

The same BBC poll mentioned earlier showed that 31% thought that the south-east had profited most from devolution, while only 1% thought that north or mid-Wales had done best.

The legislative branch could be located somewhere in the north of Wales to counterbalance the Cardiff-centric nature of the Assembly.

Attention

Last year’s EU referendum showed how dangerous it can be when the public are ill-informed about the work a legislature does, or feel that it’s not directly accountable to them.

A directly elected Welsh executive branch would increase public interest in Welsh politics, as well as increase accountability. It would energise voters, activists, and politicians themselves.

There is nothing unusual about this idea – it is used successfully throughout the world, including within UK devolution.

We can only do so much about the lack of media attention for devolution in Wales. But there’s nothing stopping us from doing all we can to ensure that Welsh politics is interesting enough that people will want to pay attention to it.

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Benjiman L. Angwin
Guest
Benjiman L. Angwin

Ifan, Dwi’n anghytuno. As someone of American origin, choosing a Presidential system over a Parliamentary system is a terrible idea. Especially for Cymraeg. Concerning a few of your points: Establishing a President. – No. What it would do overtime is change psychology towards a French/American slant (which is bad because Parliamentary democracy works better). It is also a reaction against Parliamentary systems in favour of Presidential systems (see France), which do not bode well for minority languages. Every major decision in our democracy must consider the effects upon Cymraeg hundreds of years from now. The slow-moving nature of Parliamentary systems… Read more »

ERNEST
Guest
ERNEST

Yes it may bring more public interest into Welsh issues. Most presidents are either elected in a 2 round election such as in France/Russia or you may use the alternative vote method. Should note if you use FPTP you may end up with a president representing only a small minority of voters. The second issue is that of centralisation of power, so we would need a written constitution (amendable by 2/3 of parliament or referendum?). Another, system of checks could be a 2nd chamber with delegates from the council areas or a German type federal system, This may not attract… Read more »

John
Guest
John

Without a mature polity a president would make us look even more stunted than we do already.

Peter Gilbey
Guest
Peter Gilbey

Interesting idea. I must say, there are many excellent candidates for leader here in Wales, who will *never* get a decent opportunity because they are not a member of the Welsh Labour Party.

Red Dragon Jim
Guest
Red Dragon Jim

Catalonia’s President is not separate to the legislative branch sorry.

He is the President of the Generalitat (government). He is elected by parliament. It is almost exactly the same role as a Welsh or Scottish First Minister.

The London Mayor is a valid comparison.

Wales could elect its own President who is scrutinised by the National Assembly. It could be a symbolic role rather than one of actual governance.

Cymru Llundain
Guest
Cymru Llundain

I feel that perhaps this elected figure should maybe be called Tywysog Cymru instead of President. It would have more symbolic meaning in taking the role of Prince of Wales back from the English monarchy. The Tywysog would be no different from a president, but this name would be more meaningful for a Welsh leader. Just a thought

sibrydionmawr
Guest

That sounds a pretty awful idea to me, but then I think having a government is a pretty awful idea in the currently undemocratic way we have it now. But I would far rather a Llywydd than a Tywysog any day. It would at least spare us the trouble of eliminating royalty.

Tame Frontiersman
Guest
Tame Frontiersman

A directly elected head of government rather than one elected by AMs may well indeed stimulate greater public interest in the election process and subsequent performance of the government of Wales. It should also open up the field and encourage new entrants – political parties and independents. However: It is not guaranteed to raise the bar for political debate. Even though the system of directly elected Mayors is now established and the head of government in Guernsey (elected by States’ Deputies) holds the official title “President of Policy and Resources Committee” or “President” for short, and there’s been a trend… Read more »

John Sweeney
Guest
John Sweeney

Every country in the world has a democratic deficit as you define Every country in the world will always have a democratic deficit because the majority of the public make the decision—and it’s not a bad one— to leave politics to those who enjoy it and to engage with the process only at election time or when some issue captures their imagination By all
means try to engage more people but don’t expect to suddenly inspire a surging dynamic democracy full of engaged citizens Life Just isn’t like that and that is probably a good thing

SPJ
Guest
SPJ

A simple way of raising the profile of the Welsh Government and the National Assembly would be to provide the First Minister with an official residence: the First Minister of Scotland has Bute House and the Prime Minister of the UK has Downing Street and Chequers. At present the First Minister of Wales often entertains visiting dignitaries in what looks like part of an IKEA showroom.

Jonthan Edwards
Guest
Jonthan Edwards

Benjamin L.Angwin, we need a discussion here. I have lived for many decades under the UK system. I studied it at university and practised its laws for decades more. It is crap, and here’s why. 1. It is not written down. Are referenda binding or aren’t they? What is the point and status of the “Sewel Convention” when you need it to protect Wales? 2. It does not protect Judges, so they are continually browbeaten and cowed. Though not all of them. 3. It includes a Monarchy, which has enormous “soft” power ie is unaccountable. It is also a distraction… Read more »

John Sweeney
Guest
John Sweeney

SPJ makes an interesting point about an official residence For myself, I think there are plus points to a small dynamic country dispensing with formality like this and simply meeting and greeting on official no nonsense premises

Benjiman L. Angwin
Guest
Benjiman L. Angwin

Mr. Edwards.

Wales is not a state. It’s a country.

Devolution and Parliamentary systems acknowledge constituent parts as nations; presidential and hyper-Republican systems do not.

Parliamentary systems allow peaceful and organic deconstruction of political states over much longer periods, without radical change and revolutions.

The radical change of revolutions are violent, therefore they are bad. Therefore Parliamentary systems are better than the American system or the French system.

The Welsh Language is in a position where it may not survive radical change, a revolution, or the adoption of a presidential system.

Diolch am gymryd yr amser sgwennu ateb mor hir. Hwyl.

sibrydionmawr
Guest

Wales has been a state since the establishment of the Welsh Office in 1964, so it actually predates the ‘democratic’ Assembly. I don’t know quite where to begin with your comment about the Welsh language. It’s certainly under threat, but that’s as much to do with the attitudes of Welsh speakers as much as it is about the less than positive environment it has to exist in. If more Welsh speaking people were prepared to be a little less worried about being liked, and a little more determined to insist on their language being respected the situation would change almost… Read more »

Wrexhamian
Guest
Wrexhamian

Does he mean an executive president or a symbolic head of state? If an executive one, the First Minister performs that role. If a symbolic one, whose role would be to take away the role of the Prince of Wales (as Cymru LLundain nicely put it), then why not pass the throne of Wales to the current pretenders, the Angwin family of Sir Meirionydd (the descendants of the House of Aberffraw)? That would cement Welsh statehood very effectively (a London government would never dare try to invalidate devolution or independence with such a set-up in place). It should also produce… Read more »

Jonathan Edwards
Guest
Jonathan Edwards

“Wales is not a state. It’s a country.” This does not have much meaning, unless you get some definitions. “Country” has no precise meaning. It can be as vague as “Geographical expression”. Or a country might be a State – but you’d need precision about it. “State” can have a number of meanings. 1. Territory with a Governing Structure – yes, Wales is a territory which has got a governing structure. A state in that sense. 2. “State” in international law – a State ( a sovereign governing structure) that is recognised by other States (with sovereign governing structures) that… Read more »

Lyn Thomas
Guest
Lyn Thomas

I would welcome a president of Wales, but not an executive presidency, rather on the model of the Icelandic or Irish presidency, a unifying figure above party politics who has some reserve powers but is largely symbolic. Issues of democratic deficit and regional alienation with the government based in Cardiff would be better addressed with devolution to the regions of Wales (hence my suggestion of 5 regional councils) and a balancing second chamber largely drawn from the regions and on the basis of regional equality not on population. Interestingly one of the proposals floated in the early 20th century for… Read more »

Dafydd ap Gwilym
Guest

Too many distractions for such a small population who do not know who to follow already! Nor will they until everyone has a focus and my friends, all these weird and wackey ideas will never come into focus because you are all looking from the same perspective as the rest of the decaying Western world does, trapped in a capitalist world! You have to focus on one thing and that is simply Independence. You have to drop all the 18th/19th and 20th century hang ups that still exist and familiarities to believe that here is something far better than the… Read more »

CapM
Guest
CapM

“all these weird and wackey ideas”
It’s good to have a range of ideas to discuss and evaluate.
Regarding a “President” or similar here’s a potentially w&w one.
With an absence of an indigenous press and media someone who’s role was to seek to make the Government, Senedd and AMs accountable to the electorate might be popular .
Such a role might increase the interest in our politics as well. A sort of officially elected Political @rse Kicker.

Oliver R
Guest
Oliver R

As a graduate of Bangor University, I am very disappointed to find that a lecturer from there would try to advance their case by referring to Australian constitutional arrangements without undertaking more than the most basic research. Yes, the position of Governor of New South Wales exists, but it’s clearly not what the author of this piece thinks it is…