BY GAVIN CHAMBERS
The start of Welsh devolution in the true sense was the creation of the Welsh Assembly by the Blair government following the 1997 referendum on the issue. It should be noted that not all were for it. The turnout was a low 50% of the electorate and the vote in favour of an Assembly was only above the vote against by a narrow margin of under 1%. That is a considerably smaller percentage than the majority who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 and the turnout was also far lower in comparison. In light of this, it is somewhat ironic that Plaid Cymru have been so anti-Brexit, when Welsh votes contributed so much to the leave result, and when the 1997 referendum on devolution was so much closer than the later EU one.
Despite the initial lack of enthusiasm in Wales, the public has become more used to the idea of increased Welsh powers, and devolution in my view can be seen as a positive in many respects. In an era of globalisation and the pushback against it, it is important for the Welsh people to have a sense of connection to their politics, and the ability to make and discuss laws relevant to the region is central to that. Related to that point, devolution is designed to combat calls for independence by undermining the image of laws being made by uncaring, distant elites in Westminster. In the context of British history, devolution is not a concept without precedent, as can be seen with Canada remaining part of the British Empire as a dominion when they may well had followed in the same direction as the United States. Part of the success of the UK has been its tendency to not always to act as a monolith, but to take account of the different voices of its component parts.
What I cannot subscribe to is the woeful way that devolution has allowed Labour in Wales to be in control of government for so long and allowed for their constant mission creep, demanding more and more devolved powers so that Labour, having failed to persuade the UK electorate to vote for them in successive General Elections, can find at least one region to propagate their brand of politics. Their rapacious view towards keeping hold of powers in Wales is demonstrated in their plans to offer prisoners with shorter sentences a vote in elections, which were eventually dropped in the face of massive unpopularity. Votes for 16-year olds, however, appear to be going ahead still, such is Labour’s willingness to continue gerrymandering, in fear perhaps of the gains that the Conservatives have made in recent elections.
As much as we do hear from the anti-Conservatives in Wales barracking the UK government, their record has little worthy of commendation. With the Covid 19 response, Wales has been far behind England. Testing has been much slower on the uptake and promises made by the Welsh government have repeatedly not been met. 10,000 tests had been the target by the end of May, but it transpired under 3000 had been taken. With regards to Healthcare, Wales has also been lagging against England. In terms of A & E Waiting Times before lockdown, Wales has performed consistently worse than England, with a mere 72.1% being seen in under 4 hours in December last year. Maternity services have also been the subject of some terrible failures. Cwm Taf Morgannwg has overseen some horrific cases, with basic errors directly leading to harm for children and mothers, and millions paid in compensation. These are just a few examples of the failures in recent years.
The typical response of the devolved government is to point the finger of blame at Westminster. Yet funding from the UK government is more than generous. Under the Barnett Formula spending per head is higher for the Welsh than it is the English. Additionally, all those issues mentioned above fall under powers that have been devolved to Wales and so responsibility ultimately rests with the Welsh Government. All too often, the unfortunate outcome to devolution is for devolved governments to lay claim to all successes as their own and when in failure to place blame on the UK government. They say that only if they had more powers, only then would failure after failure stop racking up.
We know this to be untrue. Welsh Labour has had plenty of time to make improvements. It has been given powers and money aplenty. It simply hasn’t performed. The facts show that the real change needed is a new government to take the reins. What we need to accept now is that the best party to take on the challenge is the Conservatives. Rival parties on the right are currently standing in the way of a change of government, not able to accrue votes for themselves, but taking away votes that have the potential to put the Welsh Conservatives ahead. The answer to the problems in Wales is not abolishing the Senedd like some parties resolve to do, nor is it to break up the United Kingdom, which is still unpopular with the Welsh people, many of whom value the union. The answer lies in the good governance that the Conservatives can provide.
Gavin is Chairman of Islwyn Conservatives and stood in the last General Election for Islwyn and is on the South Wales east regional list for the last assembly elections .