Why we need devolution to the north of Wales to see off the threat to the Senedd
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
The Westminster system was created to run an empire.
Consensus wasn’t really its modus operandi. Indeed, that would rather defeat the point, which was for those running the British Empire to tell the people in the colonies what to do, and nick their stuff.
Because of this, the British state is one of the most centralised in Europe; even with devolution. Power is hoarded in London. This has had a terrible impact; not only on Wales, but on Scotland, Northern Ireland, and on many of England’s regions.
It is not a coincidence that the UK has the worst inequality in Northern Europe. London is the richest part of Northern Europe. The other nine in the top 10 are on the continent. Nine of the poorest regions in Northern Europe are in the UK, and parts of Wales are sadly among them.
The difference on the continent is that there, power is far more equally distributed. On the continent, they have largely ditched the undemocratic First Past the Post voting system which enables politicians to effectively ignore over half the voters, and they have adopted a federal system that puts power much closer to the people.
Therefore, it is essential that Wales acquires more power if it is to change the pernicious dynamic that keeps it disempowered and traps many of our people in poverty.
But doing this on its own is insufficient. Wales has adopted the highly centralised and incredibly flawed Westminster model. The power that has been devolved to Wales is largely centralised in Cardiff Bay. We do have a voting system that is a little more proportional and therefore more democratic than Westminster, but not by much.
The use of the Westminster model in Cardiff Bay leads inexorably to more inequality between the regions of Wales. If we are to deal with this inequity between the regions of Wales, we must have devolution not only to the country, but within it.
Institutional power has a gravitational pull. It sucks attention and resources to where it resides and away from where it does not. That is why much of the UK’s infrastructure spend is focused on London. That’s why London has a transport system that is far superior to any other part of the UK. That is why the other nations and regions of the UK are left far behind.
We are repeating the same mistake when it comes to devolution. The institutional structure is the problem, so that is what needs to be changed. Sending a few quid up north every now and again just isn’t going to cut it.
It isn’t just about having politicians who care more about the north of Wales. We already have plenty of politicians who care about the region. That isn’t the issue.
Most punters aren’t going to notice if the Senedd has the occasional sitting up north, and the ones that do are probably going to be at best indifferent, and at worst hostile. It does nothing to change the institutional architecture that leaves the north out in the cold.
As long as institutional power is centralised in Cardiff Bay, the north, and other regions will always be overlooked, because the system incentivises that behaviour. You cannot defy institutional gravity. If you give regions such as the north of Wales real power, the political gravity will start to kick in. The north needs to be given its own gravitational pull.
Not doing so is dangerous to democracy in Wales and could lead people to lose faith in the Senedd. This has been illustrated recently in a YouGov poll conducted by ITV Wales. It showed that 33 per cent would vote in a referendum to abolish the Senedd. Not only that, it suggests that support for abolishing the Senedd might be at its highest in the north of Wales. This illustrates a stark and worrying disconnect between the electorate and the institution.
The irony is here of course is that the problem is that power is too far away from the people. Therefore, the solution is to bring it closer, not to take it further away by handing it back to Westminster. It would be like trying to stave off dehydration by eating salty crackers.
We need to give people more control over their lives, not less. One of the reason Wales needs more power devolved to it is so that it can then give a large chunk of it to the different regions of the country.
The poll is a warning and one which should be paid heed. A country with a proud mining tradition should be able to recognise a canary in the coalmine when it sees it.
The anti-politics mood that was weaponised in the Brexit referendum could well be directed towards Welsh democracy. We must not let this happen. The way to stop it is to take power closer to the people. That is why it is essential that real power is devolved to the north. Where power lies, and who has it matters.
We can show the people of the north of Wales that they matter by handing them control over their own lives.