Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Wales: Have we gone to sleep, just become complacent or are things far too cosy?

Scotland is awakeHolyrood and the SNP are on the marchdictating much of the constitutional agenda. Northern Ireland’s Assembly is lively, albeit sometimes for the wrong reasons. The discussions about the way England is governed are getting louderas witnessed by the demand for English Votes for English Lawsand according to opinion polls, there is even a majority in favour of an English Parliament and regional assemblies.  But what of Wales? 

There is a gentile and respectful ambience to Welsh politics these days and that has been the case since the Assembly came into existence. This encompasses not only our political parties and politicians but also the majority of the media and academia. It is rare for the ‘political waters’ to be disturbed too much. Is it because politics in Wales has become so lethargic that, in consequence, the people have got disinterested and feel nothing will change? If so, it is a very sad state of affairs. I watched a television item last night on the vibrancy of Scottish politics and it made me so envious of its people—reflecting that how Wales once was and should be today ...

I do recall past years when Wales’s political life was vibrant. Passionate debate, even arguments and yes, inspirational visions of changethey were radical times! I am old enough to remember The Parliament for Wales Campaign in the mid 1950s; to witness Aneurin Bevan and Jim Griffiths at their most powerful; to experience the emergence of Gwynfor Evans and Plaid Cymru putting the fear of God into Labour during the second half of the 1960s; and to have been part of the heated and often unpleasant debates inside the Labour Party over devolution and the language. And, of course, let's not forget the even more distasteful 'shenanigans' between Labour and Plaid during those two decades. When referring to campaigns, one has to acknowledge the impact of Cymdeithas yr Iaith in those years, campaigning for equal status for the Welsh Language. On the industrial front, there was also the miners’ strike and the three day working week during 1973/4.

In the 1980s, further industrial disputesmore specifically two miners’ strikesremain in the memory along with the subsequent devastation of many mining communities thereafter. Politically it was a quiet decade, although the SDP/Liberal Alliance did trouble the Welsh political scene where it had the support of some 20 to 23 percent of the people. Other than that, devolution was on the back burner thanks to Neil Kinnock as Labour leader and Plaid spoke in hushed tones too, though Gwynfor did rattle the establishment with his own personal stand to secure S4C.

Politics and Wales livened up somewhat in the 1990s after another Tory victory in 1992we were heading towards 17 years of Tory rule over Wales and it began to look never-ending. So the issue of devolution quickly came back onto the agenda with a vengeance. John Smith, an ardent pro-devolutionist became Labour leader and the party’s perspective altered. I knew John well in the 1970s and we both served together on the Council of Europe.

I will indulge in one personal story about John Smith. Over a meal in Strasbourg one evening with him and Andrew Fauldsthe MP/actorwe were discussing the next morning’s debate in the Council where I was going to make my maiden speech.  Andrew suggested ‘why don’t you speak in Welsh’ and, not needing much convincing, I agreed to that course of actioneven though Welsh was not considered an official language in the Council at the time. So come the debate, as I got up to speak, John sitting next to me whispered ‘do you want the standing ovation now or at the end?’ His comment threw me somewhat but I managed to speak in Welsh for two minutes before the President stopped meall I could hear in my earpiece was the interpreter repeatedly saying ‘we think Mr Jones is speaking in Welsh’. The negative reaction back in Wales from Labour activists took me by surprise‘what are you, a nationalist?’ However, on the flight back to Heathrow the pilot emerged from the cockpit and presented me with a bottle of champagnehe had heard about it on the radio as it had made UK news, and he was from Llanelli!

John Smith’s unexpected and untimely death was a very sad time for the Labour party. Fortunately, he had already set in motion, inside Labour, proposals for devolution to Scotland and Wales. He was followed by Tony Blair as leader and then Prime Minister. By the way, I have said many times that Wales owes a lot to Blair. To get any major constitutional reform on the statute book requires the unfailing and wholehearted support of the Prime Minister at the time. There had been years of agitation over the creation of a Welsh Office in the 1950s but it required the support of the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson to ensure its establishment in 1964. Jim Callaghan, on the other hand was extremely anti-devolution, hence Labour’s divisive and lack-lustre campaign during the 1979 Referendum when he was Prime Minister.

Ultimately, there came the dawn of what the majority in Wales had been waiting for a long time indeed. I often recall the then Secretary of Wales’s (Ron Davies) greeting the morning after the referendum victoryappropriately achieved with the final decisive vote from Carmarthenshire. He opened by saying ‘good morning and it is a very good morning in Wales’. Right, I thought, we are now on the road. Game on ... Welsh democracy will soon become vibrant, debate will flourish, decisions will be made in a more open environmentwith proper accountabilityand our public services will improve noticeably with the Assembly’s governance and investment decisions encompassing the whole of Wales.  

When I reflect over the seventeen years of the Assembly’s and now Senedd’s existence, very little of what I had expected and hoped for has materialised. This is where I will most definitely annoy the political and establishment classes of today’s Wales. It has always been a source of bewilderment, mirth and, at times, sadness to me that the very people who loudly pray in aid when presenting proposals, initiatives and so on, refer to the importance of  ‘democracy’, ‘equal treatment’, ‘transparency’ and of course ‘freedom of speech’ in support of their cause. But such fine words and sentiments are never applied by them when their decisions, actions and policies are under the microscope.

I don’t know whether it is the size of our countryit being so small that the whole body politic operates more akin to a local community, village or family.  Controlling influences prevail and people are expected to be careful of what is said and, most certainly, take care not to step out of line. So when someone is as bold as to openly criticise or challenge, they are quickly gossiped about, attacked, damned, ostracised and, at times, vilified for their opinions. The accepted wisdom, these days, is that one must not deign to challenge ‘The Party’, or point out where a leader is going wrong or that the Senedd is not governing effectively and our AMs are failing in their duty to adequately and rigorously challenge the Welsh government. Quite unlike the Wales in which I grew up and honed my politicsplain speaking and deviation from the bureaucratic party norm are to be actively discouraged. The outcome is less accountability in government and boring politics, leading to a disinterested publicuntil something new like UKIP turns up on the scene ...

So to understand why there is such disillusionment inherent in our politics and consider whether Labour and Plaid can claim to be the natural parties of Wales—whilst electorally both are at a standstill—let us briefly examine how four particular issues have been dealt with recently. These proposals and announcements have left me with a strong impression that much is left to be desired about the present way of conducting business.

Taking the easy one first. The proposal to increase AMs salaries by 18% was an inappropriate recommendation to put forward during such difficult financial times. It displayed a lack of perspective or sense of reality. So it was that ‘the great and the good’ viewed it just and fair for nurses and other public servants to make do with 1% until 2017/18, but our politicians deserved an 18% next May. I tried to get the matter more openly debatedbut it was difficult to get a response despite endless communications to the First Minister and Leader of the Opposition. Interestingly, other posts on this Blog, have had good media coveragecovering topics such as reducing the number of councils, the tragic death of Charles Kennedy, Plaid’s 'no deal' with the Tories and reflections on the recent Welsh opinion poll. But on this issue, there has been total silenceindeed, a case of ‘close the ranks’ time and don’t ‘upset the family!’  I could not even get the Labour and Conservative parties in Wales to respond as to their intentions. Unfortunately, the tactics of government throughout the decades has often been to ‘lie low’, ‘ride any storm’, ‘let the summer come and the public won’t care’ ... and, who knows, ‘we might even get away with it!’  It’s just cynical and arrogant politics.

Then the next major issue was Leighton Andrews’s proposal regarding the Council shake up something that is urgently needed because the existing arrangements for twenty two councils are way over the top for such a small country as Wales. Well, that should be no problem you would have thoughtwrong! All the difficulties, potential uncertainties, accusations over the Welsh government’s motives, the need for more consultation etc were put forward, as delaying tactics, by opponents. On such a major issue as how efficiently and best to govern Walesthe Senedd, AMs and local government displayed a lack of leadership that repeats itself far too often. Where is the strategic vision and direction?

The third topic that arose was Huw Lewis’s announcement of a new Schools’ Curriculum. Of course, it is obvious that changes are needed. The current curriculum has been in place for some twenty years and the world has moved on, particularly in this fast moving digital age as I am finding out! Mr Lewis, when commenting on Wales’s poor position in the PISA international league table of performance in core subjectswhere we are the lowest of the four UK nations in 43rd position with Scotland 25thsaid that there had been ‘too much denial, drift and dither’ over our performance. I agree, his predecessor had also said there are ‘systemic weaknesses in the education system.’ It is well known that Estyn is concerned over pupils’ standards and schools’ performance. For instance, last year, four out of every ten primary schools inspected were deemed as being ‘satisfactory’ only.  Teacher assessment has been a controversial issue over the past decade, standards in Welsh second language are broadly inadequate and the levels of achievement in numeracy are not improving satisfactorily. So let’s get something done? Ah well, hang on, our politicians think that it will take up to seven or eight years before changes can come into effect fullypractically two more Assembly administrations. Where’s the urgency? Why is there such a lack of perspective when trying to address the deficiencies in our education system?

Finally, there is today’s announcement, which frankly beggars belief and makes one want to shout ‘just stop playing politics and get on and do something’. A Green Paper to strengthen NHS Wales has been announced with a range of proposals and ideas for consultation. Bearing in mind all the historical and recent headlines relating to hospital waiting times; difficulties in the ambulance service; lack of adequate treatment for certain illnesses; concerns over some residential arrangements; quality of care and unacceptable management practices, we are all sadly too familiar with the standard response to these issues and failure to meet targetsin unison, ‘lessons will be learnt’. Well, I can assure you there is no need to worry anymore because the ‘idea’ is to establish a new legal duty for health providers to be transparent when admitting mistakes. Then there are proposals that will help ensure that the NHS has the right powers and structures to act in the best interests of patients and the wider public.

All the  ‘ideas’ highlighted are good and valid ones, but not only do they need to be implemented as soon as possible, they should have already been in existence from at least a few of years ago. So once again why has the Welsh government been so long in even publishing a Green Paper?  It gives an impression of action being taken but, in reality, it is once more a classic example of a failure to deliver, absent leadership, lack of urgency and complacent governance.

Which takes me back to my initial question ... have we become complacent or are things really far too cosy in the Senedd?