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14 August 2000

Why the Welsh are doing a Lucan

Devolution was Blair's Big Idea, but Wales has found that it comes at a price. Other regions should

By Paul Starling

”An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.” Arthur Miller’s dictum seems to ring like a dirge as the bruised and battered devolutionists of Britain take stock. The National Assembly for Wales has just begun its long summer recess. Some of the 60 assembly members will be considering “doing a Lucan”: leaving their clothes at the sea’s edge and disappearing without trace.

It has all gone horribly wrong, with the man who led the charge to a salted-down version of “self-rule”, Alun Michael, resigning to be replaced by the witty, affable Rhodri Morgan. Did Michael walk? Or was he pushed?

For those of you who failed to follow the Shakespearean plot that placed Michael in this unenviable position, here is a precis: Alun Michael was sitting, beavering at his junior minister’s desk at the Home Office, when he received Tony Blair’s royal call. Just hours before, the then secretary of state for Wales, Ron Davies, had resigned in the wake of a now infamous night-time stroll on Clapham Common in south London. He’d been mugged, he said, and went on to call his stroll through the notorious gay haunt “a moment of madness”.

Panic-stricken, Blair and Alastair Campbell met at High Command. “Who do we know who’s vaguely Welsh?” “What about that chap at the Home Office?” Within hours, Michael was scooped up, sent to govern Wales, and handed a poisoned chalice marked “Devolution”. Poisoned? Believe me, it is so. There are lessons here for England. Those who are beating the distant drum for English devolution should mark these words.

That one decision, to become “Tony’s choice”, destroyed Michael’s assembly career before it had even begun. After decades of dark mutterings about “bloody London”, its dominance and interference in Welsh affairs, the devolution battle had been fought to correct that “democratic deficit”. Michael never once shook off the perception that he was Blair’s man (and therefore London’s).

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Within a month, Michael walked away from Cardiff Bay and back to “real politics” – as he saw it – at Westminster.

Blair still doesn’t know what he has set in train with devolution. He wanted “constitutional change”, but he is getting far more than he bargained for.

For one thing, a power vacuum has opened up, in Wales, in Scotland, at Westminster and, progressively, across the regions of England. It took a thousand years to define and refine the Houses of Parliament, and a century to produce a Civil Service that is undeniably highly professional. This is just year two of devolution. The chasm between aspirations to “self-rule” and hard reality is difficult to measure.

The surface detail is easy. In Cardiff Bay, there are 60 AMs. Only one – the new First Secretary, Rhodri Morgan – has any experience of government. He was a junior spokesman for energy, for Welsh affairs and for health and the environment, but all in opposition. There is one other – Ron Davies – but he is now isolated, forlorn, forgotten on the back benches.

As for the rest, the Welsh Assembly is stuffed with ex-council figures, chairs of this obscure committee, directors of that voluntary service. Three party leaders have resigned: Alun Michael, Plaid Cymru’s Dafydd Wigley and the Tory Rod Richards.

There have been sackings, censure and no-confidence motions . . . and now, finally, as the first year ends, the announcement of “a total review of the way the assembly works”, led by Rhodri Morgan. Morgan warns that we need to “consider whether we are truly living up to the expectations of those who elected us. We need an honest and thorough examination.” Party leaders, business managers and “Mr Speaker”, the presiding officer, will now take a look at what has gone wrong. But you don’t need to be a forensic scientist to uncover the deep-seated malaise among voters who feel that devolution hasn’t empowered them, but has isolated them, and sent them spiralling into an apathy that could cost Labour dear at the next general election.

The vast majority live in the Valleys, which lie like seven out-stretched fingers north from Cardiff and the South Wales coastline. They belong to former mining communities that were targeted, stripped clean, closed down, abandoned by Margaret Thatcher.

Devolution promised to change that. It was meant to release democracy, energy and ideas. But Labour misread the script. Rock-solid areas such as Rhondda and Neil Kinnock’s old constituency, Islwyn, shook the party to its boots when, after years of complacent, corporatist Labourism – in which council- controlling cliques carved up power between them – they voted Plaid Cymru at last year’s Welsh Assembly elections.

Ever since, it has been those very nationalists who have wreaked havoc, using every opportunity to rubbish the powers of the Welsh Assembly in order to strengthen their argument for a full parliament and “real powers” by 2003.

They have now been silenced. Gordon Brown announced the release of £1.8bn in last month’s spending review – Wales’s biggest-ever single settlement. That will trigger a further £1.2bn of Euro “Objective One” aid to be targeted at the Valleys and West Wales – among the poorest areas in Europe. The cash bonanza will secure Labour’s power base in the assembly.

But has it come too late for Wales’s 35 Labour MPs? They’ve gone from being the focus of all “parliamentary” politics to a state of non-existence. While the media focused entirely on the shambolic first year of the assembly, Welsh MPs have suffered a state of suspended animation at Westminster. Michael’s relief at re-entering “real politics” will prove short-lived.

The corollary of stripping power out of Westminster to Cardiff Bay and Holyrood is progressively to leave our MPs with a non-role, and trapped at the centre of the vacuum that is modern British politics.

Devolution is stripping Westminster down. Europe is bleeding legal powers away daily (with the prospect of all power eventually resting in the hands of un-elected, unaccountable central bankers), while President Blair calls his Cabinet together rarely, shuns the Commons, and ignores his backbenchers.

There is, then, a profound vacuum at the heart of our democracy. The English are waking up to that fact, as well as others: for example, that, in the spending review, Wales received an increase worth 5.4 per cent a year for the next three years, Scotland 4.4 per cent, while England (with its vast majority of taxpayers) got just 3.3 per cent.

Blair’s answer is to offer England a 13-member Commons “committee of the regions”. This won’t satisfy the Campaign for an English parliament. “The people of England,” it says, “have an identity separate from a British identity, and need a parliament and constitutional arrangement that serves their special interests . . . the present one is unfair, unequal, unbalanced, favouring Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland . . . [and] it has been imposed on the people of England without consultation or approval.”

But even this will not meet the demands of the Campaign for the English Regions. Blair will never persuade Yorkshire or Tyneside to agree to a “centralised” English parliament. They are demanding their own regional assemblies, with all the financial, taxation, power and law-making implications that go with such things.

Poor Tony Blair. He has let loose the dragon of devolution; now he’ll have to face the consequences.

The writer is political editor of the Welsh Mirror