Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Commissioning is becoming a convention

Posted on Wales Home on 11 October 2011

So, there’s to be another Commission to examine the future of devolution.

Ken Hopkins would have approved.

He died this summer. He was a complex man, and the epitome of the machine politician. Indeed, he wasn’t a ‘politician’ at all, a least not formally, which in a way proves the point. He was an apparatchik, and proud of it.

After Labour’s traumatic defeat in 1992 Ken Hopkins was appointed to Chair the Party’s Policy Commission to review its policy on devolution. As Secretary of the Rhondda Labour Party, and one of Neil Kinnock’s ‘mates’, Hopkins was certain to come up with a dependable compromise which would not upset the Party establishment. And he duly did, the long forgotten ‘Shaping the Vision’.

The reason I think of Ken today is something he said to me about the brief he was given. The purpose of the Commission, Welsh General Secretary Anita Gale told him, was “to occupy the troops”.

There was five years until the next election, and there was pressure on Labour to engage in a cross-party dialogue on the next steps. It was not inclined to do so, but was anxious to show it took the issue seriously without actually, you know, taking the issue seriously. So a Commission was a perfect device.

It wasn’t an original thought. When Clem Attlee faced pressure to create the post of Secretary of State for Wales, he instead set up a Commission in 1948: the Council for Wales and Monmouthshire. A solid trade unionist, Huw T Edwards, was made Chair and he and his fellow council men issued a series of earnest reports over its ten year existence. But after a decade of getting the run around ‘the unofficial Prime Minister of Wales’ realised Harold McMillan’s winds of change weren’t blowing Wales’ way. So off he went.

The Commission had served its purpose. The activity it generated took heat out of a difficult political issue and for this won the approval of Whitehall Mandarin’s. It allowed them and their political masters to avoid making a decision on a subject that not only failed to command a consensus but caused intra-party convulsion. So much so that when Harold Wilson saw solid Labour majorities melt in the face of Plaid Cymru advances in 1966 and 1968, the file marked ‘Commission’ was dusted off again.

The Kilbrandon Commission was set-up in 1969 to examine the merits of devolution across the UK. Wilson, typically, took a cynical view of Royal Commissions - they “take minutes and waste years” he said. This one took four years, and contributed to the death of two of its founding members. By 1973 it reached a very messy and confused conclusion. It didn’t end well. The elephantine majority in the referendum that followed put an end to Government commissions on devolution for a while.

But not forever. Even when Wales voted in favour of an Assembly in 1997, the age of the Commission was not over. No sooner had the referendum been won than another Commission had been set up – NAAG anyone?

The pattern of creating a Commission to help create a consensus, rather than simply to gage one, was truly established with the Richard Commission. Like previous exercises it passed the Anita Gale test, but this time it helped shape public opinion. It was established as part of the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats and in retrospect it was their most significant contribution to the devolution story since the days of Cymru Fydd.

The growing consensus within the National Assembly that the Corporate Body model wasn’t fit for purpose, however, was not mirrored in the Welsh Parliamentary Labour Party. But the forensic analysis of Ivor Richard’s Commission of the ‘jagged edges’ in the 1998 Act shifted the intellectual argument - if not the partisan one.

The case made by the report for more powers, more members and a new voting system scored well academically, but as a case study in public affairs advocacy it offers many lessons. Chiefly, if you want to achieve change you need to win over those in power.

While Rhodri Morgan and Peter Hain had great personal sympathy for the arguments of the man they appointed, they had no political cover to follow it through. To his credit Rhodri Morgan initially said the publication of the report marked a “red letter day” for Wales; Peter Hain meanwhile was more circumspect. He made the defensible political judgement that the Richard Commission report had few friends in Parliament.

Though Peter Hain fashioned his own ‘elegant’ piece of political choreography in the form of the 2006 Government of Wales Act, it won fewer plaudits for longevity than it did for dexterity. No sooner than the ink was dry Labour was in need of coalition partners in Cardiff Bay. And as much as they acknowledged the skill of Peter Hain, Labour’s new (and unlikely) bedfellows, had little sympathy for Mr Hain’s footwork. They wanted a Parliament, but they knew they couldn’t get one – so they settled for another Commission.

Having rejected the work of one former UN Ambassador, they turned to another. Sir Emyr Jones Parry was appointed to lead an ‘All Wales Convention’. But in practice it had little in common with its Scottish namesake (circa 1988) and was more akin to Ivor’s biggun. But in politics, as in comedy, all is in the timing.

The ‘One Wales’ deal saw Labour deliver the substance of the Richard Commission’s recommendation to its original timetable, albeit via a different route. Now, six months on from the referendum, the constitutional question is open once again and through the age old medium: the Convention. In fact, in a delightful piece of choreography, the latest Commission is a result of the failure to resolve the issues raised by its two most recent antecedents. If you like, it is the love child of Ivor Richard and Gerald Holtham.

The cynical campaigners from True Wales could be forgiven for feeling smug at the rapid reopening of the devolution question. And I have some sympathy. As I have argued ( http://amanwy.blogspot.com/2011/07/challenging-culture-of-mediocrity.html ), given the profound challenges facing Welsh politics the constant search for more powers to devolve to Wales seems like displacement activity.

Although this two part Commission will turn itself, inevitably it seems, to the question of powers its founding purpose was to wrong-foot the finger pointing tendency in Cardiff Bay.

This commission is a creature of Westminster and follows the model of the Calman Commission in Scotland where the Unionist parties tried to turn the tables on those who were seeking ever more powers without the accompanying responsibility.

The Welsh Secretary thinks she is being clever by kicking the question of ‘fair funding’ into the long grass of the committee jungle. But just as the original the Calman Commission was borne out of an attempt to outsmart the SNP, and failed, so too Cheryl Gillian needs to be careful of the force that she is about to unleash. After his decade of seemingly futile toil Huw T Edwards observed, 'From tiny acorns, mighty oaks grow'.

So, the new Commissioners have their brief, they’ll be getting their papers. They are no doubt feeling excited. They have enough tricky conundrums to keep them occupied for a few years. Ken Hopkins would have approved.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog, Amanwy.

Interesting, insightful and witty.

Pleser i'w ddarllen. Diolch yn fawr.