Published on IWA blog on July 22nd 2013
On his nine-month journey through the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville discerned the characteristics of a young nation with a clarity that few have matched. Surveying a society in the throes of rapid change, the young French aristocrat was planning a treatise to help his countrymen – who had just endured the trauma of a bloody revolution – to understand the dynamics of a new democracy.
The society he famously captured in Democracy in America - a work more quoted than read – was insulated from the intense ideological battles that shook Europe. Tocqueville admitted to some regret at the “low rhetorical temperature” of this young country gripped by materialism. As he weaved his way down the east coast of America he jotted the conversations he had, and the insights he gleaned. His notebook captures a conversation with a lawyer who told him, “In truth there are no parties now in the United States; everything is reduced to a question of men – those who have power and those who want it, the ins and the outs”.
When I read this observation recently it struck a chord. Our own young democracy is struggling to define itself during a period of change that is less dramatic, but perhaps just as profound as the times captured by Tocqueville. But what strikes me about the current state of Welsh politics is the ‘low temperature’ of it all.
Apart from those most closely engaged in the struggles of governing, most observers of the current scene seem under-whelmed by it all. And yet circumstances would suggest things should be much livelier: a Welsh Government with the power to pass its own laws for the first time; a Westminster Government of a different ideological complexion pushing through the most radical austerity programme in living memory; and the not inconsiderable fact that our First Minister is running a Government without a majority. Surely, taken together, these trails of gunpowder should trace towards a powder keg ready to ignite at any moment?
But modern Welsh politics feels anything but combustable. An oft repeated reason in the bars of Cardiff Bay is the weakness of the opposition in the National Assembly. Of course, it is seductively convenient for supporters of the Labour minority Government to point to the failings of others to excuse their own torpor. Their argument, however, is not entirely without force.
The unity of opposition party leaders in the last Assembly is noticeably absent, and the conditions which almost saw a non-Labour ‘Rainbow coalition’ take office have radically altered. The consensual instincts of Ieuan Wyn Jones and Nick Bourne, and their more united groups, have not been replicated by Leanne Wood and Andrew R.T. Davies. Moreover, the politics of Westminster now make it politically impossible for Plaid Cymru to form a coalition with the parties in power in Whitehall. In addition Leanne Wood’s own political strategy is clearly designed to play the long game. Her emphasis on community activism (an area in which she is perhaps most comfortable) and the decision to put the case for independence at the front and centre of her party’s platform, makes the prospect of a repeat of the ‘One Wales’ coalition in this Assembly seem remote.
The cumulative impact is to give Carwyn Jones breathing space. Whereas Rhodri Morgan’s Government had to be alert for Opposition attempts to trip it up – with Special Advisers at one stage packing up their desks in anticipation of defeat – his successor has had more luck. Even though he does not have an overall majority of AMs at his command, the First Minister isn’t worried about being defeated.
To date Labour has been able to pick off opposition parties to agree ad hoc deals to get its annual budget through. Despite sizeable in-year spending cuts expected this year, and an increasingly tough overall budget settlement for at least the next two years, the First Minister expects to be able to continue to agree annual deals with opposition parties. In exchange for the odd bit of pork barrel they seem content to let him carry on. If politics is about gaining and exercising power, they clearly have not read the memo. No wonder he seems so relaxed. For their disunity and the absence of hunger to seize control the opposition parties can be justifiably criticised. But there their culpability ends.
Conservative AM David Melding predicted in the run up to the last Assembly elections that if Labour won an outright majority, “Carwyn Jones is likely to resemble James Callaghan on a sleepy afternoon”. In the event he didn’t secure a majority and so can’t afford to nap but it does feel as though he’s coasting. There are grumblings of discontent on his own backbenches – echoed indignantly by opposition AMs – at his cavalier, and at times flippant, approach to the weekly First Minister’s Questions.
In 2006, when Chief Political Correspondent for ITV Wales, I wrote a piece for Agenda on the potential successors to Rhodri Morgan. At the time Carwyn Jones was Environment Minister but had his sights quietly, but firmly, fixed on the top job. In my assessment of him I wrote:
“He has shown little initiative with issues like sustainable development and fair trade that fall within his brief. Carwyn’s critics say all this is evidence of laziness. ‘He doesn’t put the work in’, according to a well-placed source, a sentiment echoed by civil servants and politicians with alarming consistency.”
The phrase which survived that piece was ‘lazy’. However, reflection, it is the lack of initiative or policy drive that is the more lasting concern. When challenged Carwyn Jones can show his innate ability. But he is not often challenged externally, and he doesn’t encourage challenge from within: not from his Ministers, his advisers or from wider circles.
Instead, he relies heavily on his instincts, which to date have served him well enough. His early call for a Constitutional Convention to discuss the future shape of the UK is a good example of where he has gone with his instincts to good effect. It can go wrong, however. Notable examples were his fff the cuff forays on the merits of welcoming the nuclear fleet from Scotland in the event of a referendum Yes vote; and the bizarre demand for S4C to pull a repeat of the Welsh language soap opera Pobl y Cwm that criticised the Government’s badger cull on the grounds that there was a council by-election being held on the day it was due to air.
But perhaps the biggest test of the value of his instinct will be the fate of Cardiff airport. The gamble of taking the declining facility into public ownership is in many ways a classic example of the First Minister’s approach. It shows a keen understanding of popular feeling – shoppers at Tesco in Bridgend would readily agree that something must be done about the state of the airport. It fits into a patriotic narrative that every serious country has an airport, and in similar terms responds to the echo of the business community. But – and it’s a big ‘but’- there is no sense that it forms part of a wider strategy or plan.
Rhodri Morgan, who is known to have had his doubts about Carwyn Jones, wrote a typically coded assessment in his quirky Western Mail column when the intention to buy the airport became clear. He said:
“If he can drive the purchase price down low enough to create a bit of headroom for improvements at the terminal; if he can find a savvy airport operator who can organise the turn round (and the catch up with Bristol), and finally if he can find the right low cost airline as a partner, it could turn out to be a master stroke. It will help to define his First Ministership.”
Three big ifs – and he’s right. It is risky ground. Whereas the First Minister’s other missteps attracted little attention beyond the political village, his bold move on the airport has cut through. There will be a reward if it goes well, but if not the failure will be remembered and be quoted on the doorstep.
Good instincts are a great asset in a leader. But though necessary, they are not sufficient. They are by definition reactive reflexes. What is still not clear, more than three years into his leadership, is what Carwyn Jones’ narrative or strategy is. “Standing up for Wales”? Fine. “Delivery”? Yes, but of what, when and to whom is unclear.
There is no clear articulation of what the Welsh Government is trying to achieve. As Tocqueville noted of 1830s America, “Everything is reduced to a question of men – those who have power and those who want it, the ins and the outs”.
Commentators and analysts can quickly come up with a list of Ministers and sketch out their personal agenda or personality traits, but defining how their approaches come together is more difficult. For example, Leighton Andrews and Carl Sargeant’s directive approach to local government doesn’t easily complement Leslie Griffiths or Mark Drakeford’s attempt to shift decision making for hospital closures to the local level (that is unless they come up with the wrong answer). John Griffiths’ commitment to sustainable development doesn’t naturally fit with Edwina Hart’s support for deregulation in planning, or her renewed support for large road building programmes– in contrast to her predecessor.
Policy shifts whenever there’s a change in Minister. Edwina Hart is currently reexamining all the road schemes approved by Carl Sargeant, who in turn had re-examined all the schemes approved by Ieuan Wyn Jones, who when he became Transport Minister examined all the schemes approved by Andrew Davies (Brian Gibbons didn’t stay in post long enough to make any decisions). Add in the fact that the department has had five senior civil servants in charge over the last six years and it adds to the sense of incoherence.
The current cabinet is a collection of Ministers who have their own agendas, but it is not apparent that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Carwyn Jones has emphasised ‘delivery’ but has shown fitful concern with the ineffectiveness of the government – creating a little understood ‘delivery unit’, and sponsoring a new public policy research institute – but has not demonstrated a consistent drive to get a grip of the machinery of government or set a coherent framework for the diffuse agendas of his Ministers. The creation of a ‘Treasury function’ has been much trailed as a way of strengthening the centre, but that too is undefined.
Perhaps the clearest attempt to articulate an over-arching vision came from one of the cabinet’s newest entrants, the Natural Resources Minister Alun Davies. He told a recent breakfast seminar in Cardiff Bay: “Tackling poverty, equalities and sustainability are the three things that underpin everything”. Well, it’s a start…
In the Welsh Government’s defence it faces enormous external challenges. The early stages of the Westminster Government’s austerity programme, and its accompanying suite of welfare reforms, present multiple problems. And they are problems which will get worse. An Institute for Fiscal Studies report for the Welsh Local Government Association suggested that local authorities face an overall cut of 18 per cent. Assuming that reductions are limited to 9 per cent in key areas – social services, environmental services and refuse, and education – will require cuts of 52 per cent in spending on all other services.
Given the political pain of achieving cuts in the order of 5 per cent in the NHS, the scale of cuts to local services has the potential to provoke a considerable backlash.
To date Carwyn Jones has had a well defined, and successful, political strategy: to blame the UK coalition. But even assuming he can continue to manage the politics, the implications for how he governs will be profound.
For example, in a very badly handled episode in the days before Christmas, AMs were recalled from their break to approve changes to Council Tax benefits to mitigate the impact of cuts being made in England. After initially saying they couldn’t afford to do so, the Welsh Government found £22 million to delay a cut in housing benefits. But that is only for one year. They now face a dilemma this autumn on what they will do next year – in the context of a further reduced budget – without the same ability to blame the knock-on consequences of Government policy in England. When pressed by a Labour backbencher in an Assembly committee on whether there was a “clearly thought out strategy” to respond to the welfare changes, the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, Huw Lewis, floundered and plaintively replied “We cannot say what it will be”.
Instincts will only get the Government so far.
Having lived though the French Revolution Alexis de Tocqueville had a residual attachment to intense ideological battles. He wrote, “What I call great political parties are ones that attach themselves to principles and not just their consequences, to generalities and not just particular cases; on the whole they have nobler features, more generous passions, stronger convictions, and a franker bolder style than the others”. The America of 1831 did not meet that test, and it is unlikely that he would have been much impressed by Wales some 180 years later.