What with a pandemic, Brexit still not entirely done and Dom’s blazing feud with Princess Nut Nut, it’s understandable that a busy Prime Minister might overlook little things like Wales and Scotland. That being so, we should perhaps be grateful that Boris Johnson paid the Celtic fringes of Empire some attention this week, when (The Sun reported) he told a Zoom meeting of Conservative backbenchers that devolution had been a disaster, and Tony Blair’s worst mistake.
This was obviously wrong. Devolution wasn’t even in Tony Blair’s top three mistakes: kicking hereditary peers out of the legislature, letting Mo Mowlam wreck peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and banning fox hunting were far worse.
Still, for twenty years the devolved institutions Blair created chugged away, like little tugboats pulling the nations of the United Kingdom away from their berth. Blair’s idea was to gerrymander devolution so as to permanently exclude the forces of conservatism from power. The real disaster was his miscalculation in creating institutions which exercised power without responsibility. The devolved parliaments gave secessionists dunghills to crow from; trumpeting every bit of good news as Wales/ Scotland’s own, and every policy failure as Westminster’s fault.
Welsh devolution has had a rotten two decades. Nothing is administered better in Wales in 2020 than it was in 1999, and much has deteriorated. The Welsh NHS now has nearly half a million patients on waiting lists: one in six of Wales’ inhabitants. 120,000 of them are waiting more than 8 months for treatment. The name Betsi Cadwaladr has acquired connotations of lethality that Ratko Mladic would envy. Mark Drakeford hasn’t done any better in restricting the spread of Covid-19 than Boris Johnson; Merthyr Tydfil recently became the UK’s undisputed champion of Covid with 741 cases per 100,000 of those unambitious enough not to live elsewhere.
If health is bad, the dog’s dinner Welsh Labour has made of education is worse. PISA tests have shown Wales’ education system to be far and away the worst in the UK, and –excepting some monobrowed Eastern Bloc extremities where they still use horses to pull freight– among the worst in Europe. Many Welsh state schools failed to teach even one online lesson to their pupils between April and July. Because no-one learnt anything in lockdown, the Welsh Government took decisive action to avoid embarrassingly bad exam results in 2021. By cancelling the exams.
Boris Johnson’s stupid comments are, of course, a gift to his opponents. Welsh and Scottish nats will say he is insulting Scotland and Wales; Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon will say Johnson is jealous of their success. If the Westminster Government can be made to look hostile and alien, so much the better. Likewise, the hard-right tiddler parties –UKIP; BXP/Reform UK; the Abolish the Welsh Assembly [sic] Party– will be rubbing their hands together with delight when they see the Prime Minister doing their job for them.
Campaigning for the abolition of the Senedd is an easy gig, because being anti-Devo is being anti-politics, and no-one likes politics. Wales’ 60 members of the Senedd are just 60 snouts in the trough, and Abolish is getting good at running lurid ads on social media fomenting outrage at MS’s fat salaries (they’re paid about the same as a secondary school head teacher).
A significant part of the Welsh Conservatives’ support base, which turns out reliably to vote Tory at General Elections, hates the Senedd and sympathises with the abolitionists. The difficulty for Abolish is getting these Tories to give enough of a stuff about abolishing to actually go out and vote Abolish. Usually, Tory protest at the existence of the Senedd takes the form of sitting sullenly at home on election day and then spending the next five years moaning about Wales being a Labour dictatorship. Which, being fair, it basically is.
There may be a degree of hypocrisy in seeking membership of an institution you don’t believe should exist, but the purpose of Abolish isn’t really to win seats in the Senedd. Like the Brexit Party, it is a big electoral blackmail designed to push Conservative policy away from the centre ground and towards an anti-Devo stance. Like BXP, it is causing a good deal of trouble for the Welsh Conservatives in the Senedd, when Abolish mocks them for going native.
Devolution hasn’t worked for Wales, but that’s not devolution’s fault and it certainly isn’t the fault of the Conservative opposition in the Welsh Parliament. It’s the Labour Party’s fault, compounded by Labour’s little helpers in Plaid Cymru. For 20 years, Plaid have supported Labour at every opportunity in forming a government, in the cynical hope that Labour will make a big enough mess of it to get Plaid in next time round. Every time, all this cunning plan succeeds in doing is lumping Wales with another useless Labour Government.
Devolution in Wales has also failed because Wales is over-governed, and not because the Senedd itself is too large or powerful. With 22 local authorities and 730 town and community councils, there are too many tiers of government, and responsibility slips through the cracks. From health to highways, voters don’t know who’s responsible for what. When the Welsh NHS fails, the Welsh Government blames the Tories on one side and their own health boards on the other. Education and other public services are run by a cabal of self-interest groups, with almost three quarters of Welsh workers employed in public-sector jobs.
Devolution –as Ron Davies said when not looking for badgers– is a process not an event. It has not been a disaster, but neither do the current structures of government in Wales serve the country well.
Rather than being pushed around by Abolish in a direction that will only stoke secessionism, the Welsh Conservatives should lead the debate on how government in Wales, at every level, can be radically restructured to serve the people of Wales better. They should propose abolishing councils, not the Senedd; our Parliament needs more politicians, responsibility and power, not less.