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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Confusion rules

This article by Kirsty Buchanan in Saturday's Western Mail gets to the bottom of Labour's strategy with regards to extending the powers of the Welsh Assembly. Essentially, they are seeking to make it virtually impossible to trigger a referendum so as to keep the peace in Wales Labour. The result will be another compromised settlement between Cardiff and Westminster that will once more leave the Assembly without the powers it needs to do the job people expect of it.

'Welsh Secretary Peter Hain argues this is an exercise in what is deliverable rather than desirable - in other words what the Cabinet and Welsh Labour back benchers will stomach. This reality leaves the prejudices of a few dictating the future for the many.'

The challenge that Kirsty Buchanan sets for the opposition of a national petition demanding a referendum is an interesting one. However, as the Secretary of State for Wales and all of the political parties well know, the average voter is, quite rightly, more interested in the future of the health service, their children's education, the transport system or the economy than they are in constitutional matters. In such circumstances the kind of mass petition she calls for would be very difficult to collect indeed.

It may be possible to construct a valid and compelling case linking voters' concerns to the devolution settlement but at the end of the day we would still be battling against the innate cynicism of many people about politicians and the Assembly itself. There is also the question of whether the opposition parties would allow themselves to be distracted from their campaigns on major issues such as health and education in the run up to the 2007 Assembly elections so as to concentrate on such a petition.

It possible of course for the 500,000 signatures that Kirsty Buchanan suggests to be collected by an independent body with the support of pro-devolutionists from all parties. Such an effort is more likely to attract the attention of Peter Hain but even he is going to judge it in the end by whether he believes that people really care about this issue. Which way he would jump is impossible to say.
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