Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Mirror, mirror, on the wall...

…who’s the most devolutionary of them all? 
In a comment on a recent post, ‘Adam’ took me to task for not recognising that there were things in Plaid’s manifesto which the other parties could not say.  Specifically, he mentioned “devolution of police and criminal justice, the coastguard, broadcasting, natural resources, teachers pay and conditions, various stuff regarding rail and of course it speaks independence”.  I hadn’t seen the other manifestos at that point, but I have now, so it’s possible to examine the question more closely. 
Firstly, on the question of Independence, the manifesto does indeed mention it, but it does so, as Adrian Masters astutely pointed out, only to immediately sideline it, saying that Wales will be better served during the next period by concentrating on further devolution in certain areas, and reform of Barnett.
Now for the rest of the list – and some other things which ‘Adam’ didn’t mention.  The question was not whether other parties were uniquely saying that they would devolve certain matters, but whether it was only conceivable that one party could say that they would do so, consistent with the rest of what they have to say.
On police and criminal justice, the Lib Dems specifically say that they will press for such devolution and the Tories promise a White Paper on a legal jurisdiction for Wales.  Carwyn Jones has also talked in the past about a separate legal jurisdiction for Wales, although it doesn’t appear in Labour’s manifesto, and the party now appears to be against it.  Only Plaid specifically mention devolution of family courts, but it’s such a logical result of a Welsh jurisdiction that I can’t believe it would be a huge issue of principle.
On the Coastguard, only Plaid specifically mention it as a matter for devolution.  Possibly unique, but I can’t see any obvious reason why the others couldn’t propose it; there’s nothing obviously inconsistent with the rest of what they say.  And with the Ambulance and Fire Services already devolved, it would be a natural follow-on from policing, as the fourth emergency service.
On broadcasting, Labour say that they want to oblige broadcasters operating in Wales to “keep the National Assembly informed of their activities”.  Not quite the same as devolving control, but a step in the same direction.  The Tories want S4C to be the subject of some sort of ‘joint mechanism’ with Westminster.  Again, not exactly devolution of broadcasting, but a step towards that.
On teachers’ pay and conditions, Plaid is the only party calling for devolution.  But UK Governments have in the past supported ‘regional’ bargaining in some areas; I don’t find it completely inconceivable that they could support devolution in the right circumstances.
On rail services, the Tories want to explore the possibility of devolving Network Rail to Wales, and Labour say “that Network Rail should have a greater degree of accountability to the Assembly Government”.
Of the points raised by ‘Adam’, it is only when we start to talk about control of natural resources that I can really see that the claim that Plaid is unique in calling for further devolution might be made to stand up.  The commitment, though, is pretty vague. 
The manifesto says only “that Wales should have control over its own natural resources – wind, water, sun and tidal – and we will press for the devolution of responsibility for these areas as well as all energy generation projects”.  Indeed, looking at all references to the question of natural resources in the manifesto, it is a phrase which always seems to be closely linked with the question of energy.  And Plaid is not unique in calling for further devolution in the area of energy policy.  The Tories want devolution of power on projects up to 100MW; the Lib Dems want power over ‘larger energy projects’; and Labour seek to devolve control of renewable (an odd limitation) consents up to 100MW.
Plaid also propose devolving the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency.  Whilst Labour and Lib Dems don’t specifically propose devolving the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency, both do talk about bringing them together in one body, which implies to me that they have to have been devolved first.
On the question of taxation powers, it is the Lib Dems and Tories who are specifically proposing limited taxation powers.  Labour explicitly rule out taxation powers, and Plaid link it to reform of Barnett, a rather more conditional form of support.
Plaid also propose devolving Job Search Services, the Food Standards Agency, and Research Funding.  None of these look like being huge issues of principle to any of the other parties to me, although they are unique to Plaid’s manifesto.
Only one party also includes a more open-ended pledge to look at other matters which might be devolved – and that’s the Lib Dems.
So, to answer my opening question – who’s the most devolutionary?  On balance, the answer would have to be Plaid.  But, having sidelined the bigger question at the outset, it’s not quite the strong USP as which ‘Adam’ was trying to present it.  Devolution of further powers is something which all parties are proposing (although the Labour Party is significantly less forthright on the matter than the rest).  It’s not really therefore as strong a distinguishing feature as some might suggest.
The fact that calling for devolution of a range of specific responsibilities is something which all parties can convincingly do shows how far Wales has travelled, and how successful Plaid has been at shifting the centre of debate in a particular direction.  But, even taking all the proposals together, Wales would still not have a Scottish-style parliament.  That should be the next major step, but it's a goal for which none of the parties is promising to argue during the next Assembly term.  And as long as the argument is not put, it will not be won.

11 comments:

stay said...

I regularly read and enjoy your commentary - but there's something particularly powerful that you capture in this simple statement:

"as long as the argument is not put, it will not be won"

Well said!

Mike J

Welsh Ramblings said...

On teachers pay and conditions and criminal justice the equivalent Labour Ministers have made attacks on Plaid- clear dividing lines, even if only for the period of the election. Labour would leave these policy areas in the hands of Tory Ministers.

And when you say the differences don't add up to "as strong a distinguishing feature as some might suggest", it also seems to me that there is also enough substance there for the situation not to be the bland, consensual malaise you've described in previous posts.

It isn't quite as your correspondent suggests, but neither is it a genuine convergence.

Is it feasible to campaign for independence before getting more responsibilities? A law-making Parliament probably wouldn't have got a "Yes" vote in 1997 but did in 2011.

The danger is that the route becomes so protracted that people lose sight of the final objective- but there are plenty of people in the party who haven't lost sight and aren't likely to any time soon.

John Dixon said...

Ramblings,

I'm not sure that a dispute over where teachers' pay should be decided is the sort of clear dividing line which lays out alternative visions for Wales. And your "Labour would leave these policy areas in the hands of Tory Ministers" line of argument seems to suggest that which party determines the answers is more important than where they are determined. The logical conclusion is that if we still had a Labour Government in London, then we wouldn't need to devolve this issue.

"the situation not to be the bland, consensual malaise you've described in previous posts" Bear in mind, though, that the point I was making in this post was not that there is absolutely no difference between what the parties are saying, but that almost all of what they are saying could conceivably be said by any of the parties.

"Is it feasible to campaign for independence before getting more responsibilities?" I guess for most of its history, then, Plaid has been involved in an unfeasible project? Actually, my point is not, and never has been, that Plaid should spend all its time campaigning on that issue. And if you look back at my history of involvement with the party, it doesn't suggest that.

What I am saying though, is that the case needs to be put, and that the proportion of the electorate who support that aim will not increase as long as no-one puts the case. Not setting out an aim, but merely pushing for further devolution of specific issues as and when it seems appropriate puts Plaid in the same position as all the other parties.

Adam said...

Can't agree with your analysis John.

There is a difference in my mind between it being inconcievable and being offered.

A number of things you say Plaid have put in their manifesto but opthers haven't but dismiss them because it isn't beyond possibility that they would. i don't dispute that but the fact is on things like S4C going into this election ONLY plaid is calling for the devolution of broadcasting. Only plaid is calling for the devolution of the coastguard etc.

You can argue that the Lib Dems, Tories or Labour could support them. But they haven't made that commitment here. In that case I think my orgional argument that there are diving lines on devolution stands up.

Welsh Ramblings said...

"I'm not sure that a dispute over where teachers' pay should be decided is the sort of clear dividing line which lays out alternative visions for Wales."

On its own it doesn't, but it illustrates Labour's commitment to viewing (and conducting) industrial relations through a UK framework rather than a Welsh one- so it is an example that could inform the need for an alternative vision.

"And your "Labour would leave these policy areas in the hands of Tory Ministers" line of argument seems to suggest that which party determines the answers is more important than where they are determined. The logical conclusion is that if we still had a Labour Government in London, then we wouldn't need to devolve this issue."

Not at all John- I cite the 'Tory Ministers' line because Labour are obsessed with being seen to oppose the Tories. Their allegiance to UK-wide industrial relations is at odds with their public opposition to Conservatism.

"I guess for most of its history, then, Plaid has been involved in an unfeasible project?"

Again, obviously not and seeing as you occasionally read my blog I know that you know I am firmly for independence. You have taken my point 'campaigning for independence' as meaning having it as a long-term policy. What I meant is why make a demand for it now, before the correct constitutional and psychological conditions have been fostered? Surely maintaining it is a long-term aim is correct, even if the wording in one particular manifesto might not be as strong as you'd like?

My point is that Wales needs to go through a transitional period before independence is seen as a viable option. I agree with you that the case needs to be put.

John Dixon said...

Adam,

No, we won't agree - because we're looking at this from two different perspectives. You're looking at what the parties actually say in their manifestos and saying 'look, there are differences' - and of course there are. I'm looking for key differences of values and principles between the parties, and not finding any.

As I said previously, in trying to distinguish between the parties, I'm looking for what they are saying which could not be said by anyone else because it's based on some defining principle or value of the party concerned.

John Dixon said...

Ramblings,

No, of course I realise that you support Independence; that's something that you've made quite clear on a number of occasions. (And I read your blog more than 'occasionally', by the way!)

"What I meant is why make a demand for it now, before the correct constitutional and psychological conditions have been fostered? Surely maintaining it is a long-term aim is correct, even if the wording in one particular manifesto might not be as strong as you'd like?"

It's about a bit more than making a demand now, or a question of a single manifesto, as I'm certain you understand. It's about a long term trajectory, since perhaps 2000, where long term aims and objectives are increasingly played down, and short term policies become central instead. Whether that's good pragmatic politics or a lack of vision is a matter for debate another time.

And although we're using 'Independence' as something of a proxy here, it isn't just a question of constitutional issues, although that's what this particular post was about. On a whole range of policy areas, the parties in Wales have been converging as they fight their electoral battles in a narrow part of the political spectrum.

The result is that the sort of economic, social and environmental alternative on which I suspect you and I would have a large measure of agreement is no longer being put.

Spirit of BME said...

Mr Dixon,
An excellent diagnostic of the current policy issues of each party.
Plaid Cymru alignment with the English Parties and State is clear to see.
The words of (call me Tony) Blair is now writ large “devolution will save the Union” and all the parties are falling over themselves to do just that.
No party is now defending our country and calling into question the legitimacy of English Rule, having been established through invasion and conquest.
No one will complain when Billy Battenberg has his bash next week ,and the tile of “Wales” will be used by his family ,that the title is a calculated insult to our national dignity and rights, in fact most people in Wales will feel it is an honour- most strange..

Alwyn ap Huw said...

John's point is perfectly valid Adam. The choice we have in this election is between four devolutionist parties; Plaid may well offer the best policy on devolution, but it doesn't offer something which is ideologically different to that being offered by the other three pro-devolution parties.

Siônnyn said...

The thing that strikes me is just how far the Tories - the English Party - have come.In many areas they are more devolutionist than Labour or the Lib Dems! Now, even 20 years ago, who would have thought that was possible?

You might argue that this accords with the ill thought out 'localism' agenda of the London Tories, but nevertheless, it is a significant indication of how far Wales has come - pushed largely by Plaid, over the last 50 years.

But as you, John, have pointed out, what is Plaid now for, if it only wants to compete on managerial skills? It needs more than that, and although I think it has the best, most visionary manifesto, It doesn't make me want to man the barricades or die in the ditch. Time for Plaid to get back to its radical roots, and push the agenda from underneath, or outside, again.

Peter D Cox said...

I have been so bold as to cross link this with a blog by Jonathan Edwards with my own comments there http://www.clickonwales.org/2011/04/election-special-3-welsh-political-debate-moves-on-to-the-money/