2020 has been a strange year so far in many respects, with the global pandemic dominating our politics. For those of us concerned with Welsh politics, it has been a rollercoaster ride as we have witnessed the Welsh Government lurch from one poor decision to another writes Crispin John.
With blunders around testing, PPE and the notorious “five mile rule”, we have seen the Labour run administration secrete themselves in a bunker beneath Cathays Park and, lest anyone should dare criticise their performance, point the finger along the M4 to Westminster. It is the oldest of Welsh Labour’s tactics, and yet it has been partially effective.
Part of the problem in Welsh politics over the last six months or so is that under Mark Drakeford, the Labour Government in Cardiff Bay has been too concerned with grandstanding, and has done everything possible to avoid scrutiny by the press, and by the opposition, led in the Senedd by Paul Davies. We have been subjected to round after round of media briefings, with little challenge to what Welsh Ministers have had to say. The Senedd itself was locked down for a considerable period of time, and still in fact remains closed to the public. The UK Parliament, Holyrood and Stormont were all back up and running long before the Cardiff Bay administration discovered Zoom. First Minister’s Questions was cut and changed into a statement, with little opportunity for opposition leaders to quiz the First Minister on his Government’s performance. Important announcements were made to the press first, and not to the Chamber. Answers to written questions from Members of the Senedd have been both delayed, and frankly not worth the paper they are written on.
To some, this may seem fairly trivial. To avid watchers of the Welsh Parliament and Welsh politics more generally, to people like me, it matters. The whole ethos of the Welsh Government’s approach to Coronavirus seems to have been to take all steps possible to forge a different path to that taken by the UK Government in Westminster. In many cases, this seems to me to have been simply for the sake of it. The “five mile rule” on travel was a way of closing the Welsh border by stealth. It backfired because it meant that families were broken up unnecessarily and it created a logistical nightmare for those who didn’t live in the leafy suburbs of Cardiff, for whom a five mile trip is a matter of daily routine, rather than an irregular occurrence. That this policy was later ditched was the result of a concerted and successful campaign by the Welsh Conservatives.
The reason that many people in Wales, when polled, believe that the Welsh Government has handled the pandemic well, is a matter of perception. It is the culmination of a covert campaign by the Welsh Government to avoid scrutiny of their decision making, and their efforts to flirt with the Establishment media. It is my opinion that this is symptomatic of a wider problem. It is that 20 years of Labour administration has not worked for Wales.
All Governments need something of a shakeup from time to time, whether by means of a reshuffle, a new leader, a fresh policy drive or – ultimately – a change of administration at an election. Welsh Labour haven’t come up with anything that’s radical or new for some years. Reshuffles see the same faces rotate around a table, and a change of leadership doesn’t seem to have produced any green shoots of recovery in Cardiff Bay. It is rather like a physician, who has tried various pills and potions with the patient, and who has exhausted all other avenues, recommending radical surgery. Let’s be honest, the Welsh Labour Government is exhausted – they are on life support, and an election is badly needed to give Wales the change it needs.
It is little wonder that in all of this, some of the smaller parties in Cardiff Bay are now starting to question devolution and the existence of the Welsh Parliament – for it is no longer an Assembly – itself. Like many, I voted no in the 1997 Referendum on the establishment of the Welsh Assembly Government. I did so not purely out of some anti-devolution sentiment, but primarily because I believed that Welsh rule by Labour could only be a bad thing. Times have changed. Many who voted no back in 1997 because they were just against devolution have changed their minds, and see that it would be virtually impossible to roll back 20 years of Welsh Government.
Those who seek to derail the devolution train now by abolishing the Welsh Parliament cannot, however, tell you what they would put in its place, how much it would cost, nor who would pay for it. They also mistake the failure of 20 years of Welsh Labour as a deficiency in devolution itself. This is the great untruth of what they argue. It is not the legislature which has failed. One cannot blame a Parliament for the failures of the Executive, even if this did become fashionable, perhaps with some justification, in the last days of Theresa May’s Government.
The smaller parties who now advocate abolishing the Senedd argue that the people of Wales are being hoodwinked, and that the longer this goes on, the voice for Welsh Independence will just grow and grow. Again, I do not believe that this is a credible claim. You just have to look at the polls, which have been consistent on the issue for many years in spite of what some may say, to realise that the maths just does not stack up. These parties cannot deliver what they say, and will not influence who forms the new administration in Wales next May.
Creating a Welsh Government that truly does work, and that can deliver for the People of Wales, is no easy task. It needs a radical programme. It also requires the courage to tackle the issues that have been apparent in devolution by standing ground and refusing to kowtow to the demands of those who would seek to expand devolution still further. There is only one political party in Wales with such a plan, and that is the Welsh Conservatives.
It is why, under Paul Davies and Boris Johnson, I will be returning home to the Party I have always voted for, and who I believe can deliver real change for Wales next May.
Crispin John is a political commentator and analyst, and former Chief of Staff for UKIP in the Welsh Parliament.