Welsh Devolution through London Eyes*

by Sir Simon Jenkins, MA, FSA

I am acutely aware that I am addressing a group of experts in a subject at which I am very much an amateur. Worse it is a subject on which I can hardly believe there is new word to be said. That subject is Welshness. Having read some of your Transactions I want to state at the start that my approach is meant to be optimistic and therefore, dare I say it, counter-intuitive. I am picking up where a distinguished previous speaker, Professor R.R. Davies, spoke two years ago. His talk, ‘On Being Welsh’, discussed historical Welshness, that of law, blood, language, inheritance. Onto these terrifying slopes I have no intention of treading. But he also touched on geography and governance. Here I mean to pitch my tent.

But I must clear one matter away at the start – a matter I believe to be highly relevant. Have I a licence? Bluntly, is this audience, predominantly made up of Welsh people really prepared to listen to me, for reasons other than politeness? An iron law of group identity holds that you may criticise another person in almost all respects, but not their group, their tribe. To criticise a person’s tribe is to offend what is beyond rectification. It is the cultural, even moral framework within which we locate ourselves. Criticism is somehow more jarring, more threatening.
This comes out most vividly in humour. Only Jews may make Jewish jokes. Only blacks may satirise blacks. Only citizens of Birmingham may be unkind about Birmingham.  I was once more unkind about that city in the presence of one of its MPs, a notoriously belligerent one. He rounded on me with a string of abuse. I was a typical Londoner, a snob, pathetic, ignorant, patronising, what the hell did I know. When I could get a word in edgeways, I  protested that I was myself born in Birmingham, in Selly Oak hospital. It was as if I had struck him a blow. He stopped dead. His entire countenance changed. ‘Good Heavens,’ he said, ‘why didn’t you say so. Now, what is it we should do to make Birmingham better?’

Wales is no different. Any passing jibe, by commentator, quiz-master or a certain quiz-mistress, and the Welsh howl with indignation. They have the sensitivity of the small and the ignored. I was once asked after a lecture in Luxembourg why The Times so hated Luxembourg. I was baffled. I had gone to some trouble to check the cuttings, to see what we might have said about the place to which any exception might be taken. I had found nothing. I said that The Times did not hate Luxembourg, indeed we had barely mentioned it for ten years. ‘Exactly’ came the reply. ‘You hate us.’ John Cowper Powys, who was convinced that the Welsh were somehow related to the Tibetans, called the Welsh ‘the least advertised race on Earth’.
So, what’s my licence? Have I filled in the form right? I am half Welsh, a Welsh father and a very English mother.  I am not a ‘Cymro famtad’, Welsh on both sides. True I share that agreeable habit of most Britons of declaring allegiance to anything Celtic before anything Saxon and thus call myself Welsh. At Twickenham last Saturday I howled myself hoarse in frustration at our performance. But I was not born or brought up in Wales. I have lived in London almost all my life and for most of the year. I am a Londoner. For 50 years I have holidayed in mid-Wales. But how Welsh does that make me?

In my experience this issue of group politics is not trivial.  Welsh-born or fully Welsh-descended Londoners may have no Welsh home, no vote, no language and no other link with the place, yet feel a duty to defend Wales, and a licence to criticise it. An Englishman with no Welsh ancestry who lives in Wales, works in Wales, spends money in Wales is widely denied that licence. They are outsiders. Those whose residence in Wales is a second home are especially suspect. Anyone who thinks this a small matter should study the politics of Merioneth.
This question of group identity is central to my thesis because it lies at the root of governance. In America it is even called the New Politics. Native Americans used to suppress their ethnicity to be more accepted into American democracy. They wanted to join the melting pot. American democracy was territorial, in the tradition of European franchises, not ethnic or group.

Not any more. Native Americans  now boast their ethnicity. If they can claim membership of a reservation they have the right to job discrimination and astonishing wealth from gambling. They need prove just one-sixteenth Indian blood to qualify. It is as if the English had long ruled and settled Powys but decided to grant some lingering Welsh tribe a reservation in Caersws and the right to build Britain’s biggest casino there. That is what the virtually extinct Pequot Indians have done in Connecticut. Jan Morris’s satirical novel, Our First Leader, has Welsh Wales, Y Fro Gymraeg, as just such a reservation – a sort of detention centre for Welsh speakers.
Such group membership has racial overtones, to which Professor Davies referred. Look at the Basques. They have not just a language but a particular DNA strain in their blood not possessed by other Europeans. This strain appears to go back to the dawn of Europe. Extremist Basque politicians have proposed that only Basques with this blood marker be allowed to vote in local elections. Down this route lies a clear echo of twentieth century fascism. Yet it is now becoming part of the currency of politically correct debate in both America and Europe. It has a lethal seriousness to it.

This group identity defines not just a nation but also a sub-nation, a region, a province. And thereby it defines democracy. Who you think you are and where you live supplies the first answer to the question how and by whom you want to be governed.
I began my career working for the Royal Commmission on Local Government (Redcliffe-Maud), the first of a pathological series of inquiries by which central government has restlessly altered the structure and functions of local government in England and Wales. It would have been better if we had never begun.
Staff on the commission used to think of ways of testing local identity, so as to define the building blocks of territorial government. One test was the Costa Brava test. When Britons go far abroad and are asked where they are from, they tend to say from Britain, not from Europe. Britain is their focus of sovereignty. But when speaking to someone else from Britain, they become more specific. Cities are easy. They are from London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol. But smaller places require not one but two points of reference. King’s Lynn in Norfolk, Evesham in Worcestershire, Ludlow in Shropshire – two tiers of loyalty.
And what of Wales? You may be from Cardiff or Swansea, but I bet you first say Wales. You say Wales, from Aberystwyth, from Bangor in Wales. When asked in London where I go on holiday, I produce a real mouthful: Wales, Aberdyfi, just north of Aberystwyth, in Merioneth (never Gwynedd). One thing I never leave out is the reference to Wales.
Why? On the Royal Commission we felt that these answers meant something. They are geographical DNA. They mark where our tiers of loyalty – Britain, Wales, Merioneth, Aberdyfi – lie. They help to define geo-graphically what we sense we mean by self-government,  home rule, local democracy. And any such democracy, in my view, must answer to those tiers. It is to this that I direct the rest of my remarks.
Now self-rule is not mono-dimensional. Nobody rules themselves. The only true home-rule is parental; and few parents enjoy much sovereignty there. As soon as we form communities, we admit tiers of governance. These tiers reflect a hierarchy of groups to which we feel we belong. But to work and enjoy democratic support, these tiers must be based on areas to which we claim identity. We feel we rule ourselves the more truly and responsibly the more we know what ‘ourselves’ means.
This is crucial to understanding local government’s boundaries and its powers. On that long-ago Commission we formulated the view that cities should be unitary authorities, but anywhere outside a city required at least two tiers of democratic participation.  Entities should not reflect the convenience of central government or some putative ideal size for service delivery as determined by an Audit Commission. Democratic identity comes first, bureaucratic convenience a long way second. The most thoroughly, recklessly democratic state on Earth is America, yet its territorial conservatism is fanatical. None would dare suggest that Delaware or Rhode Island were too small, or unviable, as states.
I believe the reform of local government in Britain since Redcliffe-Maud, that is since the Heath government changes of 1974, has been a disaster for British democracy. Each change – and there have been reforming acts almost every year for a quarter century – has led to remorseless centralisation. At this very moment, the Deputy Prime Minister is scheming, with no particular consultation or consent, to abolish English counties and replace them with regional offices of Whitehall – to institute de facto unitary local government across England as in Wales.

Government in Wales has never run smooth. The Tudor Act of Union of 1536 ended the medieval division of Wales between the Principality and the Marches. It gave Wales the same structure and the same law as England, with 13 counties with parishes and sheriffs.
In 1889, this structure was rendered properly democratic, two tier. To the 13 counties were added 164 municipal, rural and urban districts. Liberals won every county except Brecon  and did so until the rise of Labour. Wales was not to be a political entity, as was to be Northern Ireland. The Welsh Liberal Party even at its zenith was divided into a South Wales Federation and a North Wales Federation. Lloyd George’s attempt to merge the two foundered. As a Cardiff alderman once told him, cosmopolitan Swansea, Cardiff and Newport would never bow to domination by ‘Welsh’ ideas.

Gladstone, a Welsh second-home owner, pointed out that Wales never had a constitution or independent legal institutions, like Scotland. Historically, geographically and emotionally, the so-called principality was split many ways. There was Jan Morris’s Wales, a Ruritania of myth and magic in the North West – ruled from Maengwyn Street. She has foreign embassies lining the Dyfi shore down to Glandyfi and an international airport, God help us, on Borth Bog. Container ships lie at anchor off the tax haven of Aberdyfi. That is one Wales, that of the Old Principality, Y Fro Gymraeg.
There are others, to which London students of Welsh history often refer – with more than a note of dismissiveness. There is Wales of the northern coastal strip, an extension of Manchester and Granadaland.  There is the great inland sweep of Powys, with Machynlleth as its Danzig, its outlet to the sea. There is the Little England Beyond Wales, Pembrokeshire and its hinterland. There is the industrial South-east, Glamorgan and Monmouth. How, say the sceptics of Welsh political identity, can this be called one country, one principality, one democratic or governmental entity?
My first answer is that it can be so-called because, as I said above, that is what most Welsh people do call it – what Max Weber referred to as a ‘community of sentiment’.  They think of themselves as Welsh. They have a vivid and distinctive culture, which embraces a language, normally considered a sufficient condition of nationhood. Both Lloyd George and Tom Ellis called themselves Welsh Nationalists with no political overtone. To Ellis, Welshness was a concoction of Nonconformity, Welsh speaking, Welsh writing and singing. Like many expatriates, I still sometimes find myself identifying Welshness with Mathew Arnold’s image of an Arthurian romantic people ‘bowed down in patient, deep disdain’. They cower while the horsemen of the Philistine invaders thunder past their tiny hovels. It was, after all, to such ancient imagery that the creators of the modern eisteddfod turned when they revived the Bardic Gorsedd on, of all places, Primrose Hill in London.
My father from Dowlais was an ardent, expatriate Welshman who returned every spring and summer to Wales for his holidays and is now buried there. He too held firmly to the view that Wales was a culture not a country. He could read and, on occasions, speak Welsh, but he found official bilingualism patronising. He held that any language that had to be propped up by the state and positive discrimination could not really stay alive other than in academies. To him, a south Walian, Welshness was embedded in religion, education, literature, song, but not in linguistic politics. He was not a devolution enthusiast.
I disagreed with him. True the Welsh lack a specific political history and what might be called size and clout. They may be like the Kurds, the Chechens, and the Pashtuns, what Engels called a ‘remnant people mercilessly crushed by the course of history’. But this in no way diminishes a claim to self-rule. The story of modern history is of countries getting smaller, not bigger, of self-rule extending its remit, not shrinking it. In Europe alone, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Estonia are all smaller than Wales and have United Nations seats. Many dispersed island nations are smaller still.

So what do we have? We have a sense of identity. We have an undeniable cultural tradition, in both Welsh and English. We have a sort of history and a territory. What more can be done to render the democratic requirement of self-rule more real?
By the nineteenth century Wales retained distinctive status largely in such matters as Sunday Abstinence and Church Disestablishment. With the rise of industry and organised labour, Welsh industrial power in Glamorgan and Monmouth was based on truly national, later ‘nationalised’ industries, whose guardianship lay in keeping close to Westminster. It lay in ‘national’ trade unions, whose strength lay in unity with English brethren. 60 per cent of the Welsh population live in Cardiff, Swansea and their immediate hinterland. They traditionally behaved as a Wales apart, what some call Rugby Wales.
As a result, the history of Welsh devolution was dire. In 1892 a proposal for a Welsh assembly collapsed when Glamorgan demanded 25 seats and proposed just two for Merioneth. A conference on Welsh devolution in 1922 was held, in of all places, Shrewsbury. It was boycotted by Glamorgan representatives. The 1920s saw a revival of cultural nationalism in Plaid Cymru. But its founder, Saunders Lewis, declared that protecting the language was more important than self-government.
Not until 1964 did the then Labour Government introduce a Welsh Secretary and a Welsh Office. As Ted Rowlands has written, it was over the dead bodies of many Whitehall officials. But its powers were administrative, like those of a present-day regional office of Whitehall. All legislation and statistics retained that fell rubric ‘England-and-Wales’. A proposal to make the Welsh Office subject to a devolved assembly was massively defeated in a Welsh referendum in 1979, by 80 per cent to 20 per cent. A statement from the anti-devolution campaign in Clwyd was explicit: People in South Wales, it said astonishingly, are very charming but as a crowd they are loud and coarse. Real Wales did not want to be governed by Cardiff. It would be dictatorship.

Over the past two decades, the Westminster Government treated Wales much as it treated Scotland, ruled from London. It was ruled by ministers appointed by the British Prime Minister and the London civil service. Few Welsh ministers even sat for Welsh seats for fear, someone said sarcastically, of showing a bias towards the place. The Welsh Office became a place of political exile, a political Siberia. Peter Walker could pretend to be a viceroy. John Redwood could pretend to be rightwing. William Hague could pretend to be a Tory leader.  He at least found a Welsh wife. His successor but one even hails from Wales – with consequences for Wales that are as yet impenetrable.
During this period Welsh local government was never left in peace. In 1974 it lost its historic 13 counties to eight super-counties. Its 164 districts became just 36. Big was to be beautiful in local government. A sop to the Welsh was to give the new counties the names of ancient kingdoms. The princes of Gwynedd, Dyfed and Powys again walked the Cambrian Mountains. It was as if the Welsh were Hobbits and local government a Middle Earth theme park.
That structure lasted barely two decades. In 1996 the Tories decided that reducing Wales from 177 democratic authorities to 44 was still too much for them to handle centrally. Two-tier was inconvenient. The number of democratic bodies was slashed to 22 new-fangled unitary authorities. I would bet that Wales has the fewest elected officials per thousand citizens in Europe. It is thus the least democratic and most bureaucratised local government.
The consolation prize, of course, was a devolved assembly. Devolution only just squeaked through in Wales, by 7,000 votes out of a million voters, itself only half of the electorate. Only a quarter of Welsh adults voted for devolution. Indeed it is hard to believe there would have been any Welsh assembly had the pressure for a Scottish Parliament not been so strong. Welsh devolution had to ride in on the coat-tails of Scotland.
Nor was it home-rule. The assembly must rank among the most impotent of all elected bodies since the demise of the Soviet Duma. A colonial Secretary of State remains in being, indeed a part-time one, statutorily free to dictate what the assembly may or may not do. The assembly cannot raise taxes, the crucial discretion of all local democracy. Even London’s Ken Livingstone can do that. All its so-called ministers can do is administer powers allowed it from London, and criticise the exercise of those powers. And it can talk. It can talk about anything it likes.

This does not come remotely close to the powers enjoyed by the Scottish Parliament. Germany’s Bavarian assembly can pass laws and raise taxes. So can Italy’s Sardinia and Sicily. So can Spain’s Catalonia and Galicia. The Basques, with their own history and culture, not unlike Wales, are virtually autonomous in matters of local government – not that this makes them happy. They can set their own taxes and decide what authority to remit to Madrid. Wales is not on the same constitutional planet.
Indeed I calculate that the Welsh assembly has less discretion than Montgomeryshire County Council had prior to 1974. With rate capping, fixed business rates, capital controls, standard spending assessments and a formidable battery of performance targets and audits, Westminster grants Welsh voters less power than they enjoyed 25 years ago. Counties then could fix their own rates. They could plan their schools and what to teach in them. They ran their own police. I remember there was always a policeman in Pennal. They could build their roads and clinics. They could decide their Sunday drink laws. They answered to their local voters. All that discretion has gone, even from the 22 unitaries.
To this extent the Assembly has been neither here nor there. By taking power away from properly local government, central government has diminished, not increased, the amount of devolution in Wales. The Assembly is a constitutional distraction. Wales has neither home-rule nor subsidiary local democracy, nor even the half-rule enjoyed by Scotland.
There is no Welsh motorway remotely on the scale of those enjoyed by, say, Tyneside, the Midlands or the North-West. Wales’s transcontinental highway is the A470, Heaven help us. You cannot overtake a hay wagon for 50 miles. Wales’s answer to the Canadian Pacific Railway, Y Cymro, pretends to run a service from Anglesey to Cardiff by way of Crewe. As for the Welsh media, it is still chiefly the South Welsh media. Cardiff cat stuck in Cardiff tree is headline news. In Bangor you have to commit serial murder to merit the same attention.
Meanwhile what I call proper self-government has drifted ever farther from the grassroots of consent. It is absurd to claim that what now exists in Cardiff is a substitute for what has been taken away in the past quarter century from towns and districts the length and breadth of Wales. Communities as coherent and as proud as Machynlleth, Dolgellau, Llanidloes, Newtown, Aberystwyth, in no sense enjoy civic power. Machynlleth’s grand town hall has been demolished.
Let me give a crude example of this in practice, the quayside railings in Aberdyfi. They are a fine set of railings, of the post and chain variety. They would have been installed in the nineteenth century by the local vestry, paid for by a local benefactor or from a local rate precept. They would have been Aberdyfi’s business and Aberdyfi’s civic pride. Today that entity, Aberdyfi, has no more than a consultative community council. Rule in the town is from Gwynedd, from Caernarfon, an hour and a half’s drive away in good weather.
Caernarfon recently decided on the basis of a health and safety report that the railings were dangerous and should be replaced by fixed bars of an appropriately standard design. It claimed the decision was its to take, in league with an even more distant body, the National Park Authority in Penrhyndeudraeth. That decision would have also been conditional on a budget and rate approved by the Welsh executive in Cardiff. And that rate would have been subject to targets and performance indicators, quite detailed ones, drawn up by the Audit Commission in collusion with the Treasury in London. Aberdyfi’s railings are a tiny cog in the gigantic computerised model of the public sector, fashioned in London.
Now railings are not a matter of national defence, which I happily defer to London. They are not a matter of international trade or tariff, which I might even defer to Brussels. We are not dealing with the price of lamb or a subsidy for the long-lost Cambrian Coast Express. It is a railing in Aberdyfi, a subject deemed fit for the Victorians to decide for themselves but not Welshmen in the twenty-first century. Nor is the decision in the hands of some second tier locus of democratic authority, say Tywyn or Machynlleth. It is Caernarfon, Cardiff and London. British local government strives to ape the Catholic Church, with Gordon Brown as Pope. It is ironic that the nearest government outpost to Aberdyfi should be the military headquarters of Edward I, in Caernarfon – though even he might have delegated railings to Harlech or Castell y Bere.

Similar municipalities in Germany or France or Switzerland would elect their mayors, raise their rates, decide for themselves how to run their libraries, museums, clinics, police stations and sports centres. They would install their own railings. And I am afraid they are better run that way. Britain’s centralisation, this lack of local ‘freedom to lead’, is the most glaring reason for the poor performance of British public services.

The contrast with a country only 50 per cent bigger in population than Wales, Denmark, is stark. It enjoys full sovereignty. Its 14 counties run hospital and health services, roads and secondary schools, with a local income tax. Its 275 municipalities have full control of primary schools, children’s and old peoples’ services. The localisation of health and hospitals since 1970 is widely credited with cutting costs and boosting productivity. Denmark has the most popular hospital service in Europe – and the cheapest. Danish public services are successful and popular. Britain’s centralised services, locally unaccountable, are seen as inefficient and underperforming.  

Let me return to where I began. A nation is a house of many rooms, language, literature, religion, history, geography. Wales may never have enjoyed anything that could be called statehood. But nor really did Ireland. Nor even the Isle of Man, which far outranks Wales in the autonomy stakes. Places such as Flanders, Alsace, Slovakia have all slipped in and out of independence over time. Far more now enjoy independence than did a century ago. Only in Britain has the trend been the other way.
But what sort of constitutional cake can we bake from these ingredients? I happen to think the Welsh Assembly has been a success, in the same sense that the London mayoralty has been a success. It is hard to conceive it not being there. It will not be abolished. Someone and something represents the people of Wales and the concept of Welshness. That is an advance. Within the principality, people sharing a common sentiment also have some means of holding their rulers to local account. Ministers must answer to representatives elected by the Welsh, not appointed by the English. They may mostly have to do what they are told by Whitehall, but they answer in public in Wales, not in Westminster. There must be far more coverage of Welsh government in the Western Mail and on BBC Wales than there was five years ago. Even a talking shop is better than no shop at all. And the Assembly is also an answering shop.
Outsiders may insult Welsh politics as corrupt, aged, venal and costly. But it is more open than it was before, and therefore more democratic. The Assembly can make a stink. It can embarrass. Agree or disagree, I found a surge of pride when the Welsh refused to join the English in their policies on foot and mouth, foundation hospitals and student top-up fees. Suddenly Wales had declared independence. I cannot believe the trend will be anything but towards giving the assembly more rather than less power. Slowly progress is being made.
But this is not enough. Cardiff government will never be self-government, least of all beyond the borders of Glamorgan. There must be more to self-rule than this. Some time ago I read a Plaid Cymru policy statement which made a good point. Its theme was small is beautiful and the message was that Cardiff was not the answer. The party, it said, should concentrate on local identity.  It should stress the continuity and vitality of Welsh communities, not the Welsh nation. It was in local communities that Welshness resided, not in institutions established in Cardiff. The line of loyalty and identity was culture, community, self-government, not via a nation. This was something of a paradox for a Nationalist party, but a good one.
The recent history of local autonomy across Europe shows that there is nothing archaic or Ruritanian in this. It is in the nature of a community to want to make its decisions for itself, even to protect itself from over-rapid change. In Devon planning permission is being used to restrict new housing to people of five years residence. Village preservation is a fierce issue in Cornwall, the Lake District and the Yorkshire Moors. The slogan, ‘No new outsiders’ is alive and well in Kent, Sussex and the Home Counties. Nimbyism is not a Welsh word. The phenomenon is potent everywhere that feels itself threatened with change.  Switzerland, a confederation of self-governing communes, has all but shut its borders to newcomers, so now has the Netherlands.

True, the agents of this new local self-assertion are often recent arrivals. They are retired people, professionals, even that growing phenomenon, the second home on the way to being a first. Resistance to change, in other words, often comes from those who have benefited from it. This is not new. Immigrants have a highly developed sense of place. Localism should find support where it can.
I long to see more autonomy devolved to the lowest tiers of government –  to restored counties, towns and districts, so what if it means three tiers. I want town and parish councils given back many of the powers long taken from them. They should be permitted some control over their appearance, their development and the protection of their character. I like the French and American traditions of locally elected mayors and governors. Wales should opt for them: they increase turnout and diminish the power of parties. Wales should have its town and district councils restored with rate-raising powers. These should have tasks commensurate with those of similar bodies abroad, such as over primary schools and social and environmental services.
Above them, I would restore Welsh counties with Danish-style responsibility for hospitals and secondary schools. They made sense. They reflected historic patterns of regional identity and loyalty. They reflected geography, lines of rivers and valleys. They still do. Their county towns were where markets were held, charitable institutions flourished along side schools and colleges. Today they are centres of leisure, tourism and economic development.
This localism comes warts and all. If the people of Ceredigion prefer wind turbines to tourism, that must be their decision. If farmers want to drive away bed and breakfast ramblers by planting acres of sitka spruce, that is their decision. If local residents want to imitate Devon and use the planning system to keep out outsiders, so be it. I may believe that no immigration is bad for an economy.

A booming, confident place would welcome newcomers. But if Wales, or Merioneth or Machynlleth feels it cannot take more housing without destroying its character, so be it. The fact is you cannot make the local democracy omelette without breaking some eggs, even some liberal ones. A desire for power over how our immediate environment changes is democracy’s answer to so-called globalisation. More people are retired. More are educated. More have money to spend on resettling somewhere new and on committing themselves to its sustenance. Such decentralisation is happening across Europe. In Britain the new localism has far to go.
Somewhere in this I find a composite of a new Wales. The British have tentatively tolerated it as a regional headquarters. But true devolution lies closer to home. It lies in reviving political life not in Cardiff, but in the streets of Llanelli and Brecon, Aberystwyth and Dolgellau, Bangor and Conway.  To this half-Welshman, half-Londoner, Wales needs not half-rule nor home rule. It needs proper local democracy, rendering unto locality the things that are local and unto the gods of Whitehall and Cardiff only what need control. It rediscovers Wales’s sense of home and hearth, as other countries of Europe have discovered theirs. Behind the facade of Welsh devolution we must reconstruct the reality of  truly Welsh self-rule.