We need to talk about Welsh devolution

After 20 years of devolution, Wales has the worst public services in Britain.

Marcus Stead

Topics Brexit Politics UK

Wales is the country whose devolution settlement is talked about the least – for understandable reasons with all that is happening in Scotland and Northern Ireland. But big problems are emerging.

From the outset, Wales was never very enthusiastic about devolution. Fewer than one in four of the Welsh electorate voted for the creation of the Welsh Assembly in 1997 – the yes vote scraped through on 50.3 per cent. Over 60 per cent voted to increase the assembly’s power in the referendum of 2011, but turnout was shockingly low, at 35.6 per cent.

Polling by BBC Wales in 2014 found that just 48 per cent of respondents knew that the Welsh government is responsible for the NHS in Wales. A similar number – 42 per cent – wrongly thought that policing is a devolved area. In the 20 years since the assembly first came into being, turnout at elections has been as low as 38 per cent, and has never exceeded 48 per cent.

The very principle of devolution has created tension between the governments at opposite ends of the M4. When Carwyn Jones was first minister and David Cameron was prime minister, Westminster was repeatedly blamed whenever shortcomings in the Welsh NHS or education system were exposed.

Successive Welsh government ministers have blamed the ‘Barnett Formula’ for ‘under-funding’ in Wales. Yet the reality is that in July, figures released by the Office for National Statistics showed that public spending in Wales was £13.7 billion more than the total amount collected in taxes.

The culture of the assembly has been one of ‘groupthink’. A cartel has emerged in Cardiff with limited competition between Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. Former Labour Welsh Office minister Jon Owen Jones has criticised the ‘great deal of cohesion around consensual views’.

This infects not only the assembly but also the civil service, prominent lobbying bodies and public appointments. Devolution was supposed to bring to an end the ‘quango culture’ in Wales, but, in the words of Cardiff University professor Kevin Morgan, Wales now has a ‘cowed culture’ of public bodies who are reluctant to speak out against the political status quo because they are dependent on the state for funding.

There is no Welsh register of lobbyists, but the Cardiff Bay bubble is full of people who were once assembly members or worked for them. Between 1999 and 2015, 195 Welsh appointees had direct links to Labour (nine times the Conservative total) and 45 had direct links to Plaid Cymru.

A decade ago, the chief political correspondent of BBC Wales was Rhun ap Iorwerth, and his ITV Wales counterpart was Lee Waters. They are now assembly members for Plaid Cymru and Labour respectively. During the intervening period, Waters was vice-chair of the ‘Yes’ campaign in the 2011 referendum on increasing the assembly’s powers.

Many job advertisements among the assembly apparatus state that the ability to speak Welsh is either a requirement or an ‘advantage’, despite the fact that the 2011 census showed that nearly three-quarters of the population in Wales had no Welsh language skills.

Welsh language requirements drastically reduce the potential talent pool of assembly staffers in a country of just three million people. But those who benefit from this discrimination are highly unlikely to say that Welsh-language policy has already gone far enough, or that the Welsh government’s target of creating one million Welsh speakers by 2050 is absurd.

Since 2016, there has been a policy of ‘Welsh-first’ road signs being gradually rolled out across Wales. There was virtually no public consultation or debate about this. It did not appear in Labour’s manifesto at the last assembly elections. It was just decided by the cosy cartel. As a result, citizens and visitors alike face a confusing distraction while travelling at high speed on Welsh roads.

There are enormous perks to being part of the assembly gravy train, keeping your mouth shut and not rocking the boat too much. Welsh government special advisers can earn over £50,000 a year. Between 2017 and 2018, Welsh government credit cards were used to spend more than £1.5million on frivolities, including £203,645 on flights and £110,890 on luxury accommodation.

A favourite tactic of the Welsh political establishment for hiding their shortcomings is to make comparisons between other parts of the UK more difficult. According to the Education Policy Institute, the proportion of children in England and Wales achieving five or more GCSEs at A*-C was similar between 1995 and 2002. But by 2011-2012, 82 per cent of children in England achieved this threshold compared with just 73 per cent in Wales. The Welsh government chose not to mirror Michael Gove’s GCSE reforms in England and within a few years, it had created a completely different grading system, making comparisons much more difficult.

The very principle of devolution inevitably sets one part of the UK against another. Brexit has shone a spotlight on many of Britain’s constitutional arrangements, from the House of Lords to devolved institutions.

Wales needs to be honest with itself. Twenty years of devolution has led to the worst public services in Britain, and an unhealthy culture of groupthink. The people of Wales have always been lukewarm about devolution. They deserve the opportunity for a rethink.

Marcus Stead is a journalist based in Cardiff.

Picture by: Getty.

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Cath Goch

8th December 2019 at 12:30 pm

If bilingual road signage causes accidents, why do many parts of England have more accidents than Wales?


And isn’t it odd how Switzerland has very low rates of traffic collisions (amongst the lowest in Europe, and indeed the world)? Considering its “confusing” and “distracting” French/German bilingual signage, one might imagine the opposite!


Mark Collins

27th November 2019 at 7:59 am

Only full independence and a democratic link between tax and expenditure will ever solve Wales’ problems.

Ven Oods

26th November 2019 at 8:35 pm

“Marcus Stead is a journalist based in Cardiff.”

Brave man. Watch out when crossing roads near the Assembly area.

James E Shaw

26th November 2019 at 12:21 pm

The problem is that who is responsible for issues of education and policing becomes confused following the terrible devolution settlement of 1999 which has only ensured the strengthening of Scottish nationalism and poor self government in Wales.

James E Shaw

26th November 2019 at 12:23 pm

Sorry, I accidentally pressed return. I meant to go on and say that the solution lies in embracing a federal model of democracy. England, Northern Ireland and Wales and Scotland should have their own parliaments and power should be devolved to the local regions.

cliff resnick

26th November 2019 at 12:30 pm

Much better the UK is governed by one parliament and local issues dealt with by local councils

cliff resnick

26th November 2019 at 12:34 pm

but of course we are never going back to that, although it could be a guiding principle.

cliff resnick

26th November 2019 at 11:07 am

What we need in Wales is more career politicians who couldn’t as they say “organise “a” in the local brewery”. A total waste of money in my opinion, counterproductive to boot, just look at the graphs, the Synedd little more than a vanity project. More Welsh language, more recycling, you know it makes sense and less of nearly everything else!

Neil John

26th November 2019 at 3:47 pm

One might suggest they are fed ‘Skull Attack’ from the local brewery, then they might have some Brains to start with!

cliff resnick

26th November 2019 at 5:03 pm

you don’t want to start from there!

James Knight

26th November 2019 at 10:41 am

Most of the pro devolution parties want to keep powers in Brussels rather than have genuine devolution. The Brussels technocracy is what they mean by “localism”.

Bill Cecil

26th November 2019 at 9:30 am

We need to reform Devolution. That is to say we need an English Parliament with the same powers as the Scottish Parliament. The second major reform is fiscal. We need to restore the link between taxation and expenditure so that if you vote for it, you pay for it. That means the abolition of Barnett.

Matt Ryan

26th November 2019 at 10:47 am

We don’t need to reform Devolution or the Barnett formula. We just need to give the Celts what they are asking for – independence. Sure, they don’t actually want it – they just want more sugar from Daddy England. But once shut of them, Westminster can be a English parliament.

Stephen J

26th November 2019 at 8:12 am

Well I thought the subject of devolution in Wales was in a pretty healthy state?

Constituency after constituency voted to leave the EU, they voted to return independence to the UK. Personally, I am a fan of dividing the nation’s constituencies into their traditional component parts… The county system was very well thought out, and we should reconsider its efficacy, particularly in terms of regional development.

Captain Scott

26th November 2019 at 8:00 am

We need an English parliament to stand up for the English and prevent our continued subsidy of ungrateful celtic nations. Let’s give them a taste of what financial independence might be like.

Winston Stanley

26th November 2019 at 1:11 am

Marcus is a British State nationalist fanatic who thinks that “Britain”, or England, should be “nationally” independent from the EU but that genuine Welsh independence should be ridiculed and shat upon. He is a flag-waver, a Union Jacker, and a proto British state imperialist warmonger. Wales does not need him or any of his kind. He should contemplate on that, Wales does not need him or his union jack.

Cofiwch Aberfan

Cofiwch Dryweryn

Ireland must be free, Scotland must be free, Wales must be free.

Tiocfaidh ár lá


26th November 2019 at 1:29 am

‘S e an fhirìnn a th’agad.

The English bleat on about ‘diversity’ and cultural sensitivity and yet they appear to have no knowledge or understanding whatsoever of the destruction visited by them upon the Celtic nations. So much for the tolerance and diversity of the UK.


Dominic Straiton

26th November 2019 at 5:44 pm

There are a few Celts in the Highlands of North Wales. The rest came from the midlands of England when Coal was discovered and needed digging out. Edinburgh is named after an Anglo Saxon King. The People of Ireland are as “celts” as I am. The fact is the people of these wind swept Islands are nearly all descended from people who have lived here far longer than any “first nation” any where else on earth. The only comparable people are the good people of Japan.

Winston Stanley

26th November 2019 at 10:17 pm

Sorry but that is not so, we have been over this many times before on here. The deep ancestry of the ethnic British today half Anatolian farmer and half Steppe pastoralist, like the rest of Europe, with some slight western hunter-gatherer admixture. That is evident from autosomal DNA comparisons with ancient populations, it is universally accepted by genetic anthropologists and it is beyond dispute. The Celtic language came with the Bronze Age pastoralists. The English are about 65% Celtic and 35% German. Wales and Scotland are much more Celtic and Ireland is almost entirely. They are rightly termed Celtic nations.

Claire D

27th November 2019 at 11:37 am

According to the a ncestry website the Average British native is

Anglo-Saxon 37%
Irish (Celtic) 22%
Western European (France and Germany) 19%
Scandinavian 9%
Iberian (Spain and Portugal) 3%
Italian/Greek 2%

The Celtic quota is indeed higher in the smaller nations :

England 22%
Scotland 44%
Wales 32%
Northern Ireland 48%

Yorkshire is the most Anglo-Saxon of all the regions at 41%.

T Zazoo

26th November 2019 at 2:04 am

It’s funny how Catalonia wants to separate because it’s tired of subsidizing all the other regions in Spain. In the UK its the other way around.

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