9th of August, 2018 was a wonderful sunny day. Outside the Welsh Assembly a huge crowd had gathered in the bay to welcome Geraint Thomas back from his success on the Tour de France. Nearby was the National Eisteddfod with it’s stalls and musical stages – this year most events had been made free to the public and the two events blended in harmoniously. Even though I was standing on a wall I couldn’t see much. The man standing next to me was telling me. “He’s there now. I can see his ear. Look there. Just to the right of the flag. Wait a second until it moves. Now! Can you see him?” Surprisingly, I didn’t notice any police anywhere.
The speakers were Carwyn Jones as leader of the Welsh Government and labour and MP for Bridgend and one of the traditional industrial areas of Wales. Followed by Elin Jones speaker of the parliament from Cardiganshire and representing an other equally radical rural tradition. Geraint Thomas as a product of Whitchurch Comprehensive School in Cardiff, the same as Sam Warburton and Gareth Bale, could be said to reflect a third urban, metropolitan Welsh tradition.
The speeches were short – Elin Jones said something about the national anthem would need to be changed to include “cyclists of renown”. Then the band which was contained a lot of brass instruments struck up and played “titw tomos las” which is a tune about a blue tit. I think the plan was for people to sing Geraint Thomas’s name instead of the original lyrics. Following this they played an original punk song by the Anrhefn “Rhedeg i Baris” (running to Paris) which was re-released by the Candelas as an anthem for the Welsh Football team in the European Cup. Then off Geraint Thomas went on his bike along Lloyd George Avenue up to the castle in the centre of Cardiff. Crowds lining the street and cheering all the way. It was indeed a joyous day in a turbulent and depressing year.
Funnily enough I saw Elin Jones again that day. First she was a speaker at a meeting in support of the Catalan people. Carme Forcadell is her counterpart as speaker of the Catalan Parliament and is in jail for allowing a debate on Catalan independence. To her credit Elin Jones has been consistent in support of democracy in Catalunya unlike the rank hypocrisy of the UK government and the majority of other European countries who has been largely silent. Later I also saw Elin Jones in an Italian restaurant simply relaxing with friends and family.
Though the assembly seemed to have come to own on that day, it is worth remembering the shaky start it had. Due to the alliances forged in the Miners’s strike and sickened from the long years of Thatcherism some sections of the progressive parties started realizing that things had to change and the idea of devolution slowly reemerged. There was a certain amount of trepidation – the memories of the divisive referendum in 1979 were still there and Ron Davies was wary of repeating the same disaster and reopening old wounds. There was a section of the labour party that wasn’t keen on devolution, seeing it as a nat conspiracy. It really took Tony Blair to impose a solution on them. And when the referendum in 1997 was won by the smallest margin in history (except for one organized by Pinochet) and was decided on the very last result that came through, there certainly wasn’t much celebration.
I remember the official celebration. An outdoor festival in Cardiff bay, attended by the Queen and Tony Blair, who said he would have preferred to be watching the football match that was on at the same time. I wasn’t at the official festival, but at the coal exchange which was showing the proceedings on the overhead screens and was meant as an overflow of the official festival. But it was empty except for about five elderly West Indian ladies from the docks. It is worth remembering that the majority in Cardiff had voted no in the referendum. As I left at the end I could see the crowds from the official event coming towards me. Though many were carrying Welsh flags and scarfs, it was nothing like a sporting event, just complete eerie silence. It was as if the earlier trepidation was still affecting everyone.
Since then, gradually the Assembly has grown in prestige and influence. 2006 saw increased power over primary legislation and in 2011 a further referendum gave it power to legislate without having to consult the UK government.
It is also true that many people don’t know who the first minister is and 43% weren’t aware that health was a devolved matter. This can be explained by the low key style of both Carwyn Jones and later Mike Drakeford and the lack of Welsh media and most of what happens in Wales goes under the radar of the UK media. While the tabloids endlessly discuss whether Corbyn danced at the cenotaph, have they noticed that a Corbynista (at least nominally) is in charge of Wales and that one of the main parties has a policy to legalize drugs. Question Time hasn’t caught up with reality either and doesn’t invite assembly members on their panel, unless they are also party leaders.
Due to the element of PR the assembly is better representative of people’s views. It has always meant cooperation across party lines and this has never meant unstable government as detractors like to claim. And though the assembly is held two-thirds by progressive parties, the Conservatives and UKIP have benefited from this aspect of the system.
The Conservatives initially put up a half-hearted campaign against it in the 97 referendum and their subsequent manifesto called for a 2nd referendum with an option to abolish it. But gradually they have come round to the idea and though traditionally thought of as an English party, due to the Assembly they have to some extent to create a distinct Welsh identity that they never had before. But they still lack the grassroots in a lot of Wales and with a lot of the UK media ignoring Wales they have difficulties in making further headway.
UKIP have also had a contradictory relationship. In the referendum of 97 they were against it and in the following election their policy was to abolish it. In their party political broadcast they infamously had someone announce that policy in a mock Welsh accent. But low and behold they got the representation denied to them in the Westminster elections and so they reversed the initial decision. But having them inside the assembly has shown them up for what they are really like, with their infighting, carpet-bagging, anti-immigrant sentiment and extravagant expense claims. As they say it is better to have them inside the tent pissing on each other than outside pissing in. Finally at the point they are likely to lose their few remaining AMs they have reversed their policy again and are now calling for abolishing the assembly again. There is a strange offshoot called the “Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party” which is also attempting a rear-guard action which might well get some electoral success in the next elections.
The last Westminster election was significant in that Carwyn Jones took over the Westminster campaign rather than the Shadow Welsh Minister whoever he or she is, followed by the Conservative Party leader in the Welsh Assembly. This process will undoubtedly accelerate as the boundary changes are due to axe eleven MPs at the same time as the Assembly may well increase from 60 to 90 AMs. It is due to get tax raising powers, become a proper “Senedd” or parliament and will lower the voting age to 16. All things that can only boost it’s influence. In recent polls 60% of the population thought that the Assembly should get more powers and 51% of young people believed that full independence was going to happen soon.
The assembly has shown consensus and maturity in the Brexit debate. The progressive parties didn’t get their act together to put a clear message forward because it happened straight after the assembly election campaign. This is a pity as the leave vote has weakened the assembly’s hand in negotiations. But in order to minimize the brexit damage they brought out a Norway + style policy in a joint white paper, written mainly by Steffan Lewis of Plaid and also adopted by Labour. This is similar to what the Scottish parties position as well. As the views of the general public in Wales have changed, so has the assembly position – to a more pro-remain position. They recently backed a motion to prepare for a people’s vote.
As the 2018 political year came to an end with the Westminster Pantomime at its worst, we are in an enviable position of having a progressive and representative assembly in Wales. Yes, we have our nutters like Gareth Bennett and Neil Hamilton, but they are safely consigned to the nutty/naughty corner and not anywhere near real power. That can’t be said about the UK parliament with Boris and Jacob Rees Mogg etc.
Maybe there are lessons for the UK and the left in particular to learn from the Welsh experience. The referendum of 79 left a lot of bitterness and division and people can and did make disastrously wrong decisions but they can also change their minds. A national identity can be built and promoted that is inclusive and diverse and doesn’t mean being any less European or internationalist, nor does it mean taking things out on immigrants. That a progressive, democratic government based on cooperation can be elected.
These are things that sprung to mind on that sunny day in August 2018.