Why the title of First Minister undermines Welsh democracy and keeps it subordinate
By Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
The title of First Minster isn’t a great one.
Indeed, it is so bad, it is questionable whether Wales should have a First Minister at all.
Now, by this I don’t mean that we get rid of the post for leader of our democratically elected government – far from it.
No, it merely means that we ditch a title that was designed not only to differentiate, but to communicate that the leader of a devolved government is lower in status than the Prime Minster of the UK. It was created to draw a distinction between overlord and underling. Westminster does not want Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon to seem as important as Boris Johnson.
Though, it should be remembered that at the advent of devolution, Wales was deemed so lowly by the Westminster establishment that even the title of First Minister was deemed to be far too grandiose for its elected leader. The leader of the Scottish Government was deemed to be worthy of title. But it was seen as too good for Wales.
The Westminster establishment is acutely aware of the power of titles and how they can shape perception. This is because they denote ones place in the pecking order, how low or how high one is the hierarchy.
Recently released documents reveal that Tony Blair contemplated handing down the title of Chief Executive to Wales’ democratically elected leader. He later settled on the miserable title of First Secretary. According to officials the British Government did not want leading figures in the Welsh administration to be viewed as “Ministers of the Crown”. It did not want Welsh democracy to be “new tier of political activity”. Heaven forbid.
We weren’t to be given a Parliament or a Senedd at the time either. We were to be given an mere Assembly instead. In this context the title of First Minister for the leader of the Welsh Government may seem like a significant upgrade – and in a way it is. But that does not mean we should settle for it. It is still a title that essentially tells Wales to know its place.
Why shouldn’t the leader of the Welsh Government be referred to as the Prime Minister of Wales?
Interestingly, we can look to the Welsh language for inspiration. It draws no such hierarchical distinction with regards to these titles. The title of the First Minister in Welsh is Prif Weinidog. The title of the Prime Minister of the UK is also Prif Weinidog. The Welsh language treats them as equivalents – as equals. If we can treat both posts equally in the Welsh language, then we can do so in English too.
Some might argue that this would cause confusion. Anyone who does so cannot have much faith in the cognitive abilities of English speakers. The title being the same has not caused any confusion whatsoever among Welsh speakers.
Therefore to believe it would be too confusing for English speakers to do the same would be a tad insulting would it not?
There a plenty of Prime Ministers in other nations and we don’t seem to get confused about them either.
In English, the title has been defined by the Westminster establishment, but when it comes to the Welsh language, we have defined it ourselves. The time has come for us to define it in English too.
It is within the gift of our government here in Wales to do that, and it should use its power to free itself from the shackles of linguistic subordination.
Yes, it may be symbolism. But symbolism matters because it influences how we see ourselves and how others see us too. How we see ourselves influences how we act, or indeed how we don’t. If we see ourselves like subordinates our behaviour will reflect that. If others see us as subordinates, their behaviour will reflect that too.
If we begin to think of ourselves as equals, and define ourselves as such, we will begin to demand the power and the responsibility that is commensurate with that status.
That’s why we should change the title of First Minster of Wales to Prime Minister of Wales. It has a rather nice ring to it.
It would send a signal that the head of our government should be treated as a leader of a nation in his or her own right. It sends the signal that they should be treated as an equal, not an inferior.
Already done something similar
We have already done something similar with our primary democratic institution. The name has been changed from Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru and the National Assembly of Wales, to Senedd Cymru, and Welsh Parliament.
This is to reflect how the institution has matured, how its powers have been enhanced, and the increased stature it has as a result. Our elected representatives rightly thought this was important. Ditching the title of First Minister and replacing it with Prime Minister is just as important for similar reasons.
A parliament is viewed differently to a mere assembly. That is why those who want to destroy Welsh democracy and abolish our national parliament insist on still calling it an assembly despite the official name change. Changing the title of First Minister to Prime Minister would cause them to have a collective hissy fit, which is almost good enough a reason on its own to do it. It would probably get up the nose of the Westminster establishment too. They don’t like it when we refuse to know our place.
Changing the name would not only begin the process of changing how we view ourselves, but how others view us too. Leaders of other nations would have to start referring to the Prime Minister of Wales, and the media would invariably begin to follow suit.
We could also change the title of Finance Minister to Chancellor of the Welsh Exchequer while we’re at it, and we can refer to them as Canghellor in Welsh. It is somewhat of a conceptual landgrab. But it is only grabbing land that is ours by right anyway. The public has an understanding of what a Prime Minister is, that politically, she or he is the big boss, the head honcho of the nation. That understanding should be harnessed to elevate the status, not only of our democracy, but our nation.
A nation does not need to be independent to have a Prime Minister. Canada had Prime Ministers long before it became independent. Same goes for Australia, which had its first Prime Minister in 1901. I am not suggesting anything outlandish. Though it may seem outlandish to those who believe that we should not define ourselves but should instead allow ourselves to be defined by others.
The change would emphasise that Wales is a nation in its own right; not a mere region of another. It would be a statement of intent, that we plan to take control of our own country.
If we describe ourselves as equals in Welsh, then we should do so in English too.