Saturday, 29 October 2016

The Wales Bill: will Wales find its teeth?

It was refreshing to see Prof Richard Wyn Jones publish a direct, unequivocal and “excoriating” criticism of the Wales Bill in the Western Mail yesterday. To date, too many Welsh politicians, lawyers, academics, journalists, commentators and representatives of civil society have couched their criticism of the Bill in measured, polite and even deferential terms, not wanting, it seems, to fall out of favour with the all-powerful Brexit junta which now masquerades as a UK Government. It’s as if they have almost fallen over themselves to apologise for having the temerity to disagree with such a brazen attempt to steel Welsh democracy; fallen over themselves to apologise for the feelings of disgust and offence that they have experienced as a result the Government’s contemptuous insult of Welsh intelligence. And it’s as if they so desperately wanted to believe that Crabb, Cairns and Bebb had innocent, albeit utterly misguided, intentions, that they convinced themselves that all that was needed was a well-penned submission of politely delivered analysis, fact and reason, and all would be well in this harmonious Union of equals.

This blog called it as it saw it nearly 18 months ago. This was a pre-mediated, calculated and intentional attempt to roll-back Welsh devolution in the guise of constitutional re-framing. It had no democratic mandate or legitimacy whatsoever, and has been presented to the people of Wales in a cynical, deceitful and dishonourable way. It was rotten from the beginning and it is rotten now.

If Prof Jones’s article does nothing more than to encourage a few others in positions of authority or influence to find their voice (and their teeth) it will be no bad thing. If, on the other hand, those very same people stand aside and allow what Lord Elystan Morgan described as Whitehall’s “colonial” attitude to prevail, it certainly will be our fate “to be governed on the basis of this nonsense”, as Prof Jones fears, for many years to come; and so might we deserve it.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Question Time, the Wales Bill and Messrs Cairns and Bebb

It will come as no great surprise to report that I am not a Conservative supporter, but it may surprise some that I certainly respect the integrity of many individual Conservative politicians and commentators, particularly here in Wales. It gives me no pleasure to say, therefore, that there is a sort of swaggering arrogance to much of the Conservative Party’s public discourse at the moment, both at a UK level and here in Wales too. It’s as if the General Election result of 2015, the referendum result, the ascent of Saint Theresa, the failure of the centrist Labour coup, the imminent disappearance of UKIP as a serious threat, the guaranteed propaganda support of 90% of Fleet Street and the equally guaranteed lack of proper scrutiny by a woefully compliant BBC, ITV and Sky (with the honourable exception of Channel 4 News), have all coalesced over the last year to embolden Tory MPs and lead them into thinking that they are now invincible, that they can do or say anything without recourse to democratic principle or criticism, that they are unimpeachable.

What is worse, however, is that they genuinely seem to believe their own propaganda. A MAJORITY of the UK population ALL want stricter immigration controls at the expense of free access to the Single Market it seems. EVERYONE who voted to leave the EU did so with a ‘hard’ Brexit alternative in mind. The devaluation of the Pound can have only POSITIVE effects. 36.9% of the vote at a general election is an OVERWHELMING MANDATE for neo-liberal reforms of English public services. A twelve seat majority in Parliament is a LANDSLIDE. And the fact that we have a completely new government that nobody at all has voted for taking the country in a radically different direction is apparently of TRIVIAL IMPORTANCE. It’s been said before, but we really are entering into the era of post-factual politics. If you repeat a lie enough times, people really do start to believe you.

Regrettably, this Westminster arrogance is spilling over into Wales and contaminating Welsh Conservative politics in my opinion. We saw it with Alun Cairns on Question Time on Thursday, making scandalous claims about Plaid Cymru members that even Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents have called “baseless”. But Mr Cairns obviously felt at complete liberty to do this, feels no need to substantiate or explain his accusations after the fact, and feels no need to retract them or apologise. In fact he doesn’t even feel the need to comment at all and just ignores the media’s requests for a statement. He obviously feels ‘untouchable’ at the moment.

Were this just a matter of mischievous behaviour on a television debate programme, I’d be more inclined to just let it pass. But it won’t have escaped the attention of Pedryn Drycin’s readership that Mr Cairns is also responsible for the Wales Bill going through Parliament at the moment, and I’m rather concerned that his new-found ‘confidence’ (if I can put it like that) could end up causing irreparable damage to the constitution of this nation.

As the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee of the National Assembly reported AGAIN this week, following several months of expert evidence gathering and detailed analysis, the Bill as currently drafted REDUCES the legislative competence of the National Assembly and makes the devolution settlement MORE complex. Let us state that again for clarity in a slightly different way: the Bill WEAKENS Welsh devolution not strengthens it; it makes the National Assembly LESS powerful, not more powerful; and it makes it HARDER for the National Assembly to effectively manage the domestic affairs of Wales, not easier. Those are the facts, and there isn’t a single lawyer, academic, or other expert who would (or has) come to a different conclusion. Furthermore, nobody (as in literally nobody) within Welsh civic society has declared any support whatsoever for a constitutional change of this type. Quite the opposite, they have expressed deep concern and disquiet about the Bill. Mr Cairns, his deputy Guto Bebb, and presumably the Whitehall mandarins who drafted the Bill, are the lone voices of support for this retrograde and reactionary piece of legislation.

Ah, but what does that matter if the Conservative Government in Westminster wants to reduce the powers of the National Assembly, has stated clearly in a manifesto that it will do so, and has an electoral mandate from the people of Wales to put that policy into practice? Well, that’s just the problem isn’t it; they don’t have any of those things. They have never stated openly that it is their policy to reduce the powers of the National Assembly (their 2015 manifesto pledge was to ‘strengthen’ Welsh devolution) and even if they had (which they didn’t), they haven’t won an election in Wales since the mid-nineteenth century, let alone the 2015 General Election, the 2016 National Assembly Election, or a specific referendum on the question. They haven’t sought the people of Wales’s opinion, and it hasn’t been given.

Rather like the Westminster Government’s response to scrutiny on Brexit policy, when challenged on the factual inadequacies of the Wales Bill, Mr Cairns and his deputy simply lie, answer a different question or resort to sophistry. They never engage with the substantive issues and they are never honest about their true motivations. So apparently the Wales Bill STRENGTHENS Welsh devolution, is CLEARER, is the result of CROSS-PARTY AGREEMENT, and was MANDATED by the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto. These things are true only in the imagination of Mr Cairns and Mr Bebb. Nobody else believes them. Nobody.

Now, if in the face of such universal criticism, opposition, and contradiction of your factual argument, you simply press on, force the Bill through Parliament unamended by means of your English Conservative majority, and impose a new, inferior, and insulting constitutional settlement on Wales, ...well, there’s no other word for it really, you’d have to be pretty ‘arrogant’ I’d have thought, and pretty dishonourable as well.

If Cairns and Bebb continue along their current path, history will judge them very cruelly indeed I believe, not only for imposing an insulting constitutional settlement on Wales but also for having the hubris and arrogance to do so by deceit and sleight of hand. It will also reflect very badly on those Welsh Conservative politicians who actively supported them or those who sat on their hands and said nothing at such an important juncture. That would be a great pity, and a disappointment for me personally, as the reputations of many people I had previously respected would be tarnished for ever.