Tuesday, 27 July 2010

To ConDem(n) the Welsh Referendum?

A new government in the UK, the Conservative - Lib Dem coalition, brought forward an agenda of respect in regards to their relations with all the devolved governments, be they in Cardiff Bay, Hollyrood or Stormont. It would be hard, not to mention premature to assess its success now, less than three months since the government came into power, but the events of next spring (the referenda, both on AV and devolution, local and regional elections) may force an early assessment. More importantly, given the rather ... historic nature of the Welsh referendum, it is crucial to see how relations between Westminster and Cardiff may influence its outcome.

Firstly, the new secretary of state, Cheryl Gillan, was widely criticised after the first Welsh leaders' debate for arguing Rhodri Morgan was still First minister and who, apparently, once stated that she was extremely happy to have 'got out' of Wales. Going beyond her abilities or her previous position as Shadow Welsh Secretary, the main problem with this choice of Minister is the fact that she doesn't represent a Welsh constituency. Peter Hain was quoted as saying this wasn't really a 'sensible' choice, while Plaid Cymru called it a return to the 1990s. Thus, given that the coalition have, in-between them, 11 MPs in Wales, it would not have been that hard to pick one; moreover, in stark comparison, the clearly left-leaning electorate in Wales (29/40 MPs without the Lib Dems, 31 with) got a Conservative Secretary of State, whereas Scotland got two Lib Dems within the space of a fortnight (I doubt anyone has already forgotten the David Laws episode, which saw, as a domino effect, the Secretary of State for Scotland job being passed from Danny Alexander to Michael Moore, both Liberal Democrats).

One thing must be said at this point: My purpose here is not to evaluate her competence, merely to point out how her actions are perceived and their consequences from this point of view. And it's not looking very good. First, the whole squabble over the date, the question and the procedure for the devolution referendum, though maybe not her fault entirely, but of the previous administration, followed by arguments and contradictory statements with the opposition and the Labour-Plaid government in Cardiff Bay. Then, the Prime Minister, in PMQs, announced that the referendum was to be held next year at a time when the idea was still debated and then hinted at his 'not eligible to vote' status in Wales when asked whether he would vote YES or NO in it. This gave the Westminster opposition (or the Welsh government, depends how you look at it, party-wise) the best punch line against Gillan's actions. Lastly, the Welsh Grand Committee met at the end of June. And it was a proper circus. First, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury gave evidence of the Budget, but it seems that only he and the Welsh Secretary knew about it before hand. Consequently, his speech wasn't made available to the members of the committee, the agenda had to be changed at the last minute and, though this apparently isn't against the rules of procedure, it is frowned upon. Then, the rules of procedure apparently seemed to take a whole life of their own, as the chair, Conservative MP Graham Brady lost all control over the meeting and started making rules as he went, while everything, as a Labour MP pointed out, turned into a 'farce' (proceedings here). So much for the Respect agenda ...

Lastly, there's the impact of the government's measures on Wales, which will to a great extent influence opinion and votes in spring 2011 and the dreaded government cuts will be first in the minds of all voters. Yet, the emergency budget has clearly ring-fenced health and protected education, thus protecting the devolved budgets from the worst cuts, while also bringing most cuts in the area of social security which in the devolved regions is the responsibility of the central government (see Devolution Matters for a comprehensive analysis). These measures together with the fact that the regional governments have been allowed to postpone them until next year, thus just enabling them to ensure few cuts are delivered until the spring elections/referenda, have basically ensured that any strong feelings against the measures will be directed at Westminster politicians and not at the regional ones (further enhanced by the fact that both in Scotland and Wales, the parties in power are the opposition in Westminster).

Hence going back to Wales, a contestation of the new Secretary of State for Wales followed by the debatable success of her activities (the Welsh Office has been called 'the laughing stock of Whitehall') together with the blame for the drastic economic measures going to Westminster, will see an increase in Welshness across the principality and in trust in the government in Cardiff Bay, as opposed to the one in London. This will, then, ensure that the high numbers of those going for a YES vote in the referendum (55% in favour, YouGov/ITV Poll - June 2010) have the potential to increase even further. Who would have thought that Cheryl Gillan together with the Westminster Conservatives (who aren't 'really' for the YES vote on this) would actually be some of its greatest 'advocates'...

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