Monday, 7 February 2011

What lies behind a vote

“I’m voting ‘No’ ‘cos I don’t want to give them ministers any more powers to muck things up.” How often has this been said since this referendum campaign has kicked off.

It is a common enough reaction to politicians, but why single out politicians in the Bay for the treatment. 
Westminster abounds with ministers that have ‘mucked things up’ but no one seems to be advocating that they be stripped of their law making powers as a consequence. 
Surely it is wrong on two levels, first it mistakes the purpose of the referendum and secondly, mistakes law making with government.
The referendum is about the powers the institution itself should have. It is about simplifying the process of law making. Although quite why a referendum is required for such a purpose has never been adequately explained. 
If a referendum was needed it should have been held in 2006 when Westminster allowed the Assembly to make its own laws for the first time. OK, it was a very convoluted way of making a law, but it was law making never the less. For the first time the Assembly could initiate the law making process despite Westminster having their fingers still in the pie.
Indeed a compelling case could be made to say that they mucked it up when they devised the system. But not many raised any objections at the time. No one cried out “off with their heads.”
Yet, when it comes to this referendum an argument is being put forward that a vote for the ‘no’ side is a way of giving a good slapping to Assembly politicians.They must be punished for their past misdeeds. 
Although their misdeeds when weighed against those of the Westminster politicians were insignificant indeed.   There many MPs were exposed as having their noses very much in the trough. Many were found to be feathering their own nests with tax payers money when the expenses scandal was bought to light by the Daily Telegraph last Spring.
But why let the facts get in the way of a good line. It would seem to be a winning formula, to make a successful ‘no’ result a vote on the performance of the Assembly government.  
But is this referendum the appropriate time and place to kick Assembly politicians? Surely not. Most fair minded people looking at the laws that Assembly have passed to date would say that they have been for the best. 
Who could reasonably object to safety belts on school buses, fire sprinklers in new homes, measures to increase the supply of affordable homes and of course helping those with mental illness. 
Most of the voters would approve of most if not all of these measures. If criticism there was, it was with the time the whole process took.  Yes, it is the speed of their enactment that has been the bone of contention, which is of course what the referendum is trying to put right. 
So if its not the laws that people object to, what is it?  The issues that cause political controversy are what Ministers do or don’t do.  That is the meat of our political system both here in Wales and in Westminster. 

Welsh Assembly Government ministers have vast powers over devolved matters. 
The Health service reorganisation(s) is a case and point. It is not law that is dictated the constant changes but the various Ministers’ whim.  It is not law that decides the way the cash is divided up but the Finance Minister. 
Now all these areas are far more controversial than law making. When laws are passed there is an opportunity to influence and change the legislation as it slowly meanders through the various stages before the Queen puts pen to paper and signs off the process.
In contrast, there is little opportunity to change the mind of a minister hell bent on a certain outcome.  These matters can only be changed at the ballot box.  Yes, not the ballot of March but that held in May.
For it is  on the fifth day of May that the Bay politicians are to be held to account for their stewardship these last four years. For that is the day of the Welsh General Assembly elections. 
A campaign to use the referendum as a device to kick politicians is misplaced. It will not touch them. But as certain as night follows day, it will weaken the National Assembly itself. 
Many suspect that this is the real intention behind the ‘no’ campaign. The reasoning is that a successful ‘no’ vote would so discredit the institution that Westminster would decide to scrap it. 
It is highly unlikely that any government will roll back devolution and even more doubtful that the Assembly now that it’s established will be scrapped, it’s not the Ark Royal.  But, a ‘no’ vote will considerably weaken the hand of Wales in its dealings with Whitehall. 


  1. Excellent article Gareth, no spin just the truth.

  2. And there you have it Gareth. The conerse of no weakening ministers' hands is yes strengthening them. It is also a green light to the process which Plaid sees as independence at some point in the future. It also opens up the pandora's box of Richards and Holtham. It is also an endorsement of the centralising of power in Cardiff and the demise of local authorities as we know them.

    Wales is very different from Scotland and N Ireland, the extended land border makes interaction with England both desirable and essential. Differences in the legal system will inhibit interaction and reward the introspective.

  3. The funding of Wales remains a central government matter whatever label you put on it Barnett or Holtham. This would not change even if the Assembly was scrapped. As for local government in Wales it is in a sorry state and the thought of giving them more powers makes me shudder. It would be like putting the lunatics in charge of the asylym.

  4. The lunatics are already in charge of the Assembly as evidenced by their woeful performance.

  5. Anonymous 1
    "It is also an endorsement of the centralising of power in Cardiff"
    So a No vote wouldn't be an endorsement of the centralising power of Westminster then?

    "The extended land border makes interaction with England both desirable and essential".
    No problem with that at all from a Yes perspective, but on more equal terms. Why does our 'interaction' have to be Wales needing to ask permission for everything?

    John Broughton
    "The lunatics are already in charge of the Assembly as evidenced by their woeful performance".
    And Westminster's performance is fine, right?

  6. Many of the people posting comments here seem not to have read the article, its not about the Government of Wales its about the National Assembly of Wales. Should we strip Westminster of its legislative powers based on the performance of its executive?

  7. "Should we strip Westminster of its legislative powers based on the performance of its executive?"

    Perhaps that is not such a bad idea!

    Gareth - you are right to highlight the powers that Ministers have over Health - especially when we look over the border and see an unprecedented (and un-mandated) assault on the very existence of the NHS proceeding at great pace, with little scrutiny or consultation. That surely should be enough to give anyone wondering which way to vote pause for thought!