Thursday, 25 October 2007

Convention and Fudge

The shape of the devolution settlement granted to Wales following the referendum in 1997 was never a thought-through coherent structure. Nor was it ever intended to be. It is quite clear that it was a cobbled-together approach, which its author, Ron Davies, always knew would be unsustainable.

He was confident that, once such a body was created, it was a step that could never be undone, and therefore the very creation of the body was the important aspect - everything else could be revisited. To achieve the creation of the body, he had to steer a course between enthusiasm for greater devolution and deep-seated opposition to the very concept – all entirely within his own party. So we ended up with a fudge.

That basic contradiction has never gone away; the real regulator of progress remains where it has always been - in the internal workings and tensions of the Labour Party where enthusiasm and hostility continue to co-exist in an uneasy and sometimes quarrelsome relationship.

The inherent problems with the settlement rapidly became apparent during the first Assembly, but there was no real appetite for dealing with them, so the government did what all governments do in such situations - they set up a Commission. Lord Richard was tasked with reviewing the whole set-up, and the issue was safely kicked into the long grass for a few years.

The Commission’s report, when it was published, can have surprised almost nobody, given the weight of evidence presented to it from a wide range of bodies and individuals. But what it did not, and could not, do was address the real problem - which was, as ever, the internal disagreement within the Labour Party. The result, inevitably, was that the 2006 Government of Wales Act was another fudge.

It is an Act which gives the Assembly a complex, almost incomprehensible, way of starting to make its own legislation, but allows Westminster to hold a veto at all times. It is an Act which legislates for a Parliament, but makes it subject to a difficult-to-hold referendum. An Act which the pro-devolutionists could support as a step forward, and which the antis could support as a means of, as they saw it, blocking progress for the foreseeable future.

Following this year’s elections to the third Assembly, a coalition was negotiated between the two largest parties, and the issue of the referendum on enacting the full provisions of the 2006 Act was a central feature of the negotiations. From Plaid’s perspective, there was a need for a clear commitment to holding a referendum; from Labour’s perspective, there was a need to avoid giving any such clear-cut commitment, or at the very least, leaving an escape clause. The result was another inevitable fudge - a pledge to establish a Convention.

Some people, such as Professor Richard Wyn Jones, have queried what exactly the Convention will do; that misses the point. It's real purpose is met, in full, by its very existence – it needs to do nothing more than to exist in order to meet that objective - because the real objective is simply to act as the glue which sustains the One Wales coalition for the next four years, and allows both partners to accept that the other is operating in good faith.

Normal Mouth, as ever, exposes the nakedness of the Emperor. He goes on to argue, as I interpret him, that the fact that it does not have an obvious role is not to say that we shouldn’t give it one. On that, I agree with NM; but on the nature of that role, we differ.

He suggests that the Convention could and should look at the arguments for that next step in detail. I’m not entirely convinced by this argument, not least because it seems to pre-suppose that the precise model for the next step is open to a degree of change. I take issue with his suggestion that this will be a 'pre-legislative' referendum; the legislation establishing a Parliament for Wales is already on the Statute Book; the only issue is whether it should be activated. This means that, if the Convention was to suggest even slight changes, there could be a need for further legislation to give effect to them.

Having said that, I think that NM and I would probably agree that, in an ideal world, the debate should be at a level which analyses what powers Wales needs and should have, based on an objective assessment of what would deliver real benefits to our people. But I hold out little hope that such a debate is possible, since it seems to me that most of the protagonists know what the ‘correct’ answer is, and are interested only in arguments which support their conclusions.

In the campaign for a referendum, we can already anticipate the battle lines. Plaid, and whatever is left by then of the Lib Dems, will campaign for a Parliament.

I think we can take it as read that the Tories will campaign against. Some such as Glyn Davies might argue against me on this one, but the tide within that party is drifting in the direction of Stephen Crabbe and David Davies. Even Glyn himself, in saying that he hopes that one day there will be a majority in his party in favour, admits effectively that the majority is currently against him. Cameron and Gillan have already declined several opportunities to say that they back Bourne on this issue; and most Tory AM’s have been conspicuously silent on the issue. The Tory decision to campaign against will be based entirely on what their high command see as being to the electoral advantage of their party - and the English perspective will be more important to them than the Welsh one.

The key question, in a direct repeat of 1979 and 1997, is what Labour will do. This is, ultimately, the only issue which needs to be resolved before a referendum for a parliament can be won. It is, and always has been, grossly over-simplistic to present the fault lines in Labour as being between Cardiff and London, although the attraction of that argument to the Plaid politicians who make it is obvious. The task for Sir Emyr and his redoubtable diplomatic skills is to achieve once more what Ron Davies did before 1997 – to get a sufficient level of consensus within the Labour Party to support the policy which that party has democratically decided upon. It’s no small task, but it’s the only meaningful job that the Convention has. Anything else will be just window-dressing.

12 comments:

Glyn Davies said...

As far as Conservative policy is concerned, you do not quite grasp what I've been trying to say over the last few years. Logic dictates that we will become a party of devolution. Today, there is much public comment about the supposed negativity of an article which Stephen Crabb has written for ConservativeHome. Yet any careful reading of his words (rather than the tone of the article) reinforces what I say. I have just posted on this on my own site.

Ceredig said...

Glyn,

I think I do understand what you've been saying; I just don't think that you're in touch with the grass roots membership of your party across most of Wales.

Of course, logic dictates that you must become a party of devolution. The Assembly is here to stay, and your party will have to start accepting that - one day. To date, with the exception of a few brave souls such as yourself, Nick Bourne, and David Melding, the party simply does not accept it.

Sadly, Crabbe is more in touch with the membership than you on this one. And, having read your piece on his statements, I can only say that it looks to me as though you are being ever so slightly selective with your quotes.

The bottom line is that he himself makes clear that he is opposed to the existence of the Assembly, and that the only reason he is not calling for its abolition is that that is not 'currently' saleable. These are not the words of a man who is anywehere near Damsacus, I'm afraid.

Draig said...

I think an element of Plaid's strategy is to gamble that we will get a Tory government in London before 2011, and that this will lead to a change in Labour thinking as regards a Parliament.

Many Labour AMs and MPs will be mindful of the fact that many of their constituents voted for an Assembly because of 18 years of Tory rule. The fact that the Tories went out in 1997 and campaigned for a "No" vote probably did much to focus minds in the Labour Heartlands of south wales.

Let's see if similar considerations play out this time round...

Normal Mouth said...

You are of course quite correct that the main objective of the convention was to get the two parties over the hump that separates their constitutional ambitions. And, as you further note, I'm saying that now it's here it may as well make itself useful.

It is in that spirit, rather than in the belief that it will change minds, that I suggest it be put to use taking on each and every argument against a Parliament and either disproving it completely or acknowledging it and...well, then we'll have to see.

I don't say that this will necessarily result in bringing around the sceptics; as you rightly note there are some trenchantly held views. But (and here we depart company) it is more likely to do so than by Sir Emyr and co. attempting to persuade them or act as some sort of interlocutor between the different strands of Labour opinion. Why should the sceptics listen to him when they ignored Ivor Richard, a Labour Peer (albeit an extraordinary pompous one) and Ted Rowlands, a man respected within the Welsh PLP?

I also find it difficult to believe that the Tories will make the same mistake twice and campaign for a 'no' vote when it comes.

Ceredig said...

Draig,

I'm not convinced that Plaid have a strategy of any sort, let alone one as cunning as you suggest. I don't think they've really got their heads around being in government yet. And a strategy which depends on the Tories getting into government so that people will vote against them in a referendum seems unlikely from a party which very nearly put them into government in Wales itself.

Ceredig said...

Off-thread SPAM comment comment from Uspace removed

Ceredig said...

Normal Mouth,

"why should the sceptics listen to him" - fair point.

Perhaps the task that you suggest would be a better formal set of Terms of Reference for Sir Emyr; but I don't think that changes the fact that real success can only be measured in terms of delivering a (more or less) united Labour Party when it comes to the referendum campaign.

As to the Tories; well I really can't share your optimism on this one. I think that they are more than capable of making the same mistake again. Apart from anything else, they may well see electoral advantage to themselves in being the only party to take a different line, and their real target audience will not be in Wales anyway, but in England. Cameron has had plenty of opportunities to show that he has learned from past mistakes on this one, but has shown no inclination to back Bourne.

Valleys Mam said...

Do you understand what Doug Tohighadmighty is on about, may be NM does. Why does he not want Sir Emyr - eminent and intelligent to Chair this.
He hasn’t come up with a name but knowing his closeness to the Kinnocks -maybe he is looking there!

Ceredig said...

Mam,

I think that Touhig's only real objections to Sir Emyr are:

(1) That Don Touhig didn't select him and wasn't given any input at all, and

(2) That he isn't convinced that Sir Emyr will come up with the 'right' answer.

He really simply hasn't got his mind around either the fact of the Assembly's existence, or the fact that his strand of Labour won't always get their own way in Wales any more.

Poor dab.

alanindyfed said...

With the growing swing to the Conservatives in England Labour will look increasingly towards Plaid as a natural ally in Wales and distance itself from the Touhigs, Bryants, and Murphys in Westminster, who along with Kinnock and Hain will be forced to change their tune.

Ceredig said...

Alan,

You really don't understand the Labour Party, do you?

For all the differences amongst them over the one particular issue of a law-making parliament for Wales, there is still much more that binds them together than leads them apart.

One of your party's repeated tactical errors is the belief that there are two wings in Labour that can somehow be prised apart - that is just too oversimplistic for words.

alanindyfed said...

Yes, sadly even a leopard's kids don't change their spots.