I once met Lord Tebbit, albeit only in passing. I was with Dafydd Wigley in the underground labyrinth which gives the basement of the Palace of Westminster the feel of a giant public convenience. We were probably somewhere between ‘this house’ and ‘the other place’, when Tebbit appeared suddenly out of a side tunnel beaming from ear to ear. He was regaling all and sundry (including Dafydd) with the news that their lordships had just inflicted a defeat on the (Tory) government of the day.
I can’t remember exactly what the subject was, but I have a vague recollection that it was a minor amendment to an obscure clause in some European legislation. Oh, and that the government (as governments are wont to do) reversed the defeat in the Commons in due course. It was a useful lesson in the way that some elected (or in this case, even unelected) members can get so institutionalised in the procedures and debates that they imbue the minutiae with a sense of importance which completely passes most of us by. And they generally have difficulty understanding why the rest of us don’t care.
The incident came to mind in recent days during the reporting of discussions on the Welsh budget. It’s another case of much ado about not very much at all.
We now know that the concessions secured by the Lib Dems amount to less than 0.2% of the entire Welsh budget, and that those demanded by Plaid amounted to somewhat less than 0.5% of the same budget. We don’t really know what percentage change would have been needed to satisfy the Tories, but that doesn’t really matter. Both Labour and Tory parties are far too tribal to have ever come to a deal with each other, even if it were to have been the cheapest deal of all.
I’m sure that the insignificance of the sums involved compared to the overall totals reflects a realistic and pragmatic approach to what was actually possible, and I don’t blame the Lib Dems (any more than I would have blamed Plaid) for accepting such a small change as the price for their support. What I do blame all the opposition parties for, however, is the rhetoric in advance.
When they were telling us that they thought the budget was unacceptable, and that it didn’t meet the priorities of Wales it seems that what they really meant was that they thought the budget was over 99.5% acceptable and largely met the priorities of Wales. It’s rather a different proposition.
It also highlights the real problem facing Welsh politics. A budget isn’t the same as a programme, of course; but one would surely expect any radically different programme for government to come with much more significant budgetary differences than 0.5%. In effect, during all the headline grabbing and posturing of the budget discussions, no party has put forward an alternative programme which is at odds in any major way with what Labour are planning to deliver.
It seems that the smaller are the differences between them, the more attention gets drawn to them. I’d sooner see less attention-grabbing and more real differences.