Thursday, 29 October 2015

Mr Crabb, his Wales Bill and dodging the real questions

It is fascinating, and rather telling, that since launching his draft Wales Bill last week (‘a final constitutional settlement for Wales’), Stephen Crabb has not once taken the opportunity, whether in press releases or in speeches, to passionately outline its virtues in detail, highlight where it transfers the all-important new powers to the Welsh Assembly which will conclusively reverse economic decline or improve public services, spell out how its structure and provisions bring much needed clarity and simplicity to the legislative system, systematically demonstrate (counter to all contrary accusations) that it does not reduce the competence of the Assembly but actually increases it, and conclude (in a flourish) with a clarion call to the faithful that this is indeed the Wales Bill to end “constitutional obsession” for a generation.

No, he has done none of these things. The bill, its specific provisions, its envisioned processes and systems, its long-term implications, its vision for a well-functioning Welsh democracy, have hardly been mentioned at all. It has neither been aggressively promoted nor aggressively defended. It has simply been shoved into the darker recesses of the Wales Office press team’s ‘U-drive’ (they’re always U-drives aren’t they?). That is, of course, because the more attention the actual provisions of the bill get, the more obvious it becomes that it is an exercise in deceitful regression, a bill designed (pre-meditatively) to reverse Welsh devolution at the same time as being presented as deepening, clarifying and finalising it. That’s too much for even the brass-richest of un-reformed Conservative centralist necks to defend in the (admittedly tame) cockpit of Welsh political debate.

Credit where it’s due though, Mr Crabb and his advisors are smart enough to know that you can’t have your cake and eat it. You can’t launch a completely new constitution for Wales and simply not talk about it; whistle, as it were, and hope that the public and media will buy a pig in a poke on face value. So what do you do? You don’t want to talk about the bill itself and you don’t want to answer specific, authoritative criticisms and questions directly. You know you will lose. You also know you will look sly or stupid.

So you turn to that age-old rhetorical strategy of pre-emptive, aggressive diversion. You will aggressively ‘occupy’ the public forum on your own terms for as long as is needed, at least until the opposition tires or neutrals and the uninformed credit you by default with ‘authority to conclude’. Hence, you accuse your critics of displaying unreasonable, irrational and emotional reactions whether they do or they don’t (it’s impossible to prove or disprove). You falsely, but subtly, conflate non-related arguments with the one you want to put forward (it takes a long time to untangle conflated arguments). You exaggerate unproven or minor consequences of ‘not agreeing with me’ and present them as important or even existential (material/financial ‘risks’ always command disproportionate attention until they are proven or disproven). You make claims of reasoned truth whilst knowingly omitting key facts that would actually undermine your own argument (calculus provides answers based on the factors used not on the factors available).

If you are bright, have a lot of stamina, and the media and your opposition is either weak or disinterested, you can sustain this diversion for as long as you want. You may never have to openly or honestly answer the questions you were originally presented with, questions, in this case (and I take the liberty of paraphrasing a myriad of critical sources), such as: ‘If the Silk Commission presented a potentially enduring ‘devolved’ constitutional settlement for Wales, in what way does this bill realise that vision?’ ‘If it doesn’t realise that vision, why, and what is the alternative vision?’ ‘Legal and academic authorities claim that this Wales Bill reverses devolution in Wales vis-à-vis the GoWA 2006. Does it, and if so why?’ ‘What referendum, manifesto or electoral mandate entitles you to reverse the constitutional settlement established by the referendum of 2011?’ ‘If you believe it doesn’t reverse that settlement, what legal advice has been provided to defend that claim?’

These are just some of the very basic but crucial questions Mr Crabb has been successfully avoiding for a week with elementary rhetorical diversion and obfuscation techniques about “nationalist lawyers and academics”, “emotional reactions” and “economic impacts”. But as I said, if the media or your opposition is either weak or disinterested…