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Saturday, December 18, 2004

Great communicator hits out at devolution

The man voted best Welsh communicator by an anonymous panel of BBC judges has been making the most of his gift to tell the nation what a disaster the Welsh Assembly has become. Most of them will most probably agree with him, but for totally different though equally invalid reasons.

Unfortunately, Mr. Price has fallen into the trap of judging us against the unachievable and unrealistic rhetoric of Ron Davies and others during the devolution referendum. His views may also come as a surprise to the Plaid Cymru Assembly group, many of whom have supported the changes that he condemns.

Mr. Price is quoted as saying, "Devolution was supposed to be the catalyst for this new kind of politics. Sadly it has failed to transform the culture of politics." Well what did he expect? If he spent any time watching the debates and the committees of the National Assembly then Mr. Price would see that proceedings are less formal and more consensual than Westminster. In that sense the ambition to be different has been achieved. However, the only way to create a "new kind of politics" would be to exclude politicians from it. Even then, in time, it would become more and more recognisable as the sort of politics we know and love.

Mr. Price continues: "In slavishly following the Westminster model, our democracy in Wales has imported all the worst features of the Westminster charade: the near-complete concentration of power in the hands of the executive, with an assembly symbolically important, but in reality increasingly irrelevant."

Well, yes! But what was the alternative? The hybrid model of committee system and cabinet envisaged by the Parliament of Wales Act was not working. From day one all the powers were delegated to the Cabinet with the proviso that nothing in that delegation will undermine the pre-eminence of the Assembly. Since then we have been involved in a continuous struggle to separate out the actions of the Government from that of the Assembly itself so as not to bring the whole institution crashing down as a result of the failures of Ministers.

In contrast to Mr. Price's own rhetoric, that dismantling of the Corporate status of the Assembly, and the confirmation of the executive's power as a Welsh Government, has actually freed up the Assembly to do its job of scrutiny, policy development and legislating. It has made for a more effective opposition and it has increased the pre-eminence of the committees.

Admittedly, in doing that we are aping the Westminster model, but we are trying to do so in a more consensual way. Our problem is not the route we have chosen but that as yet we are nowhere near as effective as Westminster in our scrutiny and in holding the executive to account. These changes have had the support of all the parties in the Assembly, including Plaid Cymru. Perhaps Mr. Price needs to talk to his own colleagues about their reasons for embarking on this particular journey.

Finally, the big questions thrown up by Mr. Price's rant are, if he believes Westminster is such a charade then why is he there and what would he put in its place? Being such an effective communicator I am sure he will tell us in due course.

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