The Dragon on Our Doorstep: New Politics for a New Millennium in Wales

The inaugural lecture to the Institute of Welsh Politics by Rt. Hon. Alun Michael AM/MP.

Originally published in 1999/2000, Issue 1– Interstate’s 35th Anniversary Issue

At the time of the 1979 Devolution Referendum, when all the votes were counted and the results were announced, the then Secretary of State for Wales John Morris famously said: “When you see an elephant on your doorstep, you know that it’s there.”

Wales at that time was not ready for devolution. But gradually, in the twenty years since then, the elephant succeeded in transforming itself into a dragon. And in 1997, it managed – narrowly it has to be said – to convince the Welsh people that it was indeed a friendly dragon, a harbinger to a new era in Welsh politics and in the life of our nation.

Tonight, I would like to restate the case for devolution, putting it in its proper historical perspective. Not as a staging post on the road to separatism – a compromise, a half-way house – not as a nationalist concept or a Trojan horse. No, as a principle in its own right – and as the right principle for democracy in Wales – for the New Wales in a New Britain.

I wish to offer you my vision of the new politics in Wales – what it means to me, and what – as leader of the Assembly – I want to achieve for the people of Wales

I wish to offer you my vision of the new politics in Wales – what it means to me, and what – as leader of the Assembly – I want to achieve for the people of Wales.Tonight, I would like to restate the case for devolution, putting it in its proper historical perspective. Not as a staging post on the road to separatism – a compromise, a half-way house – not as a nationalist concept or a Trojan horse. No, as a principle in its own right – and as the right principle for democracy in Wales – for the New Wales in a New Britain.

A Fragile Democracy

You know, it amazes me sometimes how quickly people adjust to a new situation. How quickly they forget the past. For decades devolution was no more than a distant dream. We argued about it, campaigned for it, suffered the setback of the ’79 Referendum, and until September ‘97, it seemed way beyond our grasp.

Now – finally – thanks to the Labour Government, it is a reality. Almost overnight it has become part of our national consciousness. Already it seems that some have forgotten what a great thing we have achieved. People are beginning to take devolution for granted. Even some members of the Assembly behave as though it were something to be treated lightly, even carelessly .

Well, they do so at their peril. Yes we have brought power closer to the people of Wales – but we have not yet delivered the better Wales we seek to build. And we need to be clear about that objective. The Assembly exists to deliver on that objective for people in Wales. And we will only succeed in our ambitions if we fully understand the opportunity that has been presented, and if we fully accept the responsibility – the grave responsibility – that comes with it.

Historical Perspective

This audience will be familiar with the milestones in our history which led to devolution. The democratic movements of the late 19th and early 20th Century; the creation of new cultural institutions like the University and the National Library here at Aberystwyth; the beginnings of administrative devolution – all contributed to the development of a distinctive political identity.

Despite these changes, the Labour Party – for much of its hundred-year existence – has been broadly centralist and unionist in its outlook, and for good reason. The social and economic needs of the time required not devolution but greater central state planning, and indeed the regional policies of both the Attlee and the Wilson governments helped enormously to bring about post-war recovery.

Nevertheless, from its earliest days Labour also had a devolutionist tradition. The pioneers of the Labour movement a century ago had upheld the cause of devolution. They wanted a democratic socialism rooted in local communities like the Welsh valleys, not the bureaucratic centralized machine favoured by the Marxist Social Democrats in Germany.

Keir Hardie, MP for Merthyr, was a strong devolutionist who upheld home rule for Wales. He wanted to unite Y Ddraig Goch a’r Faner Goch – the red dragon and the Red Flag. Ramsay MacDonald and Arthur Henderson backed ‘home rule all round’.

And, by the 1950s, there was growing sympathy within the Labour Party for the case for a Welsh Secretary of State. Even Nye Bevan, a fierce opponent of devolution in 1945, was re-thinking his position.

With the new Labour Government of 1964 came the first ever Secretary of State for Wales, Jim Griffiths – a powerful and consistent voice on behalf of Wales. Indeed he threatened to resign unless he was granted real authority and his own department in the form of the Welsh Office in Cathays Park. Cledwyn Hughes, his successor, and Gwilym Prys Davies were passionate advocates of devolution in the sixties and still are! I pay tribute to John Morris and John Smith who worked so hard in Parliament as Ministers for devolution.

And there are others whose names are too easily forgotten – Emrys Jones, the far-sighted secretary of the Labour Party in Wales, John Reynolds, a great figure of the Co-operative Movement and the leader of Cardiff City Council, and Ian Dewar, whose role as a civil servant was essentially a silent one. Many of you could add names from all parts of Wales. Such men and women did much to strengthen support within the Labour Party and beyond for a political system that would be more answerable to the Welsh electorate. Cewri Cymru yw’r rhain i mi.

Another important force in that time was my predecessor as MP for Cardiff South, Jim Callaghan, whose Labour Government first put devolution properly on the political agenda.

To mention key figures on the path to devolution in my own party is not to ignore the importance of individuals in other parties and outside politics, most notably Gwynfor Evans. But it was only the Labour Party which had the power as well as the will to deliver devolution to Wales, and the people I have named all played a vital part in committing the Labour party to the democratic principle which it has now achieved.

Of course we should be honest about the fault lines within the Labour Party and more widely within Wales. Many people feared devolution. I remember the passion with which people like Leo Abse and the young Neil Kinnock campaigned against devolution. I also remember George Thomas savaging me after we had dared, in Wales Radical Cymru, to promote Labour’s devolution policies with enthusiasm !

This time it has been different. We have taken the Labour Party with us, but many who supported the case for devolution this time still did so with some trepidation. They have given us a chance, but they remain to be convinced. Some have started to be enthusiastic.

As someone who has fought for devolution within the Labour Party for more than thirty years, it seems to me entirely fitting that the prize of devolution should finally be brought to Wales by a Labour Government. After all, Wales, its chapels and radical culture, its strong communities and innate sense of justice and fair play, its commitment to the Co-operative ideal, had been a cradle of the Labour movement and of socialism in the 1890s.

To me, Welsh values are Labour values. Fairness, social justice, opportunity for all, democratic accountability, co-operation – these are Welsh values and they are the values I have stood for throughout my life as a Welsh Labour politician. They are the values which guide me today as Leader of the National Assembly for Wales.

Where We Are Now

The democratic deficit which has held Wales back for so long – and which became so glaringly apparent in the 1997 general election when not a single Tory MP was elected from Wales – that democratic deficit has now been removed.

And there is a new politics at work here. It’s not just a slogan. With all the froth and bubble of media coverage of recent events, it has been all too easy to overlook how radically the government of Wales has changed in the past year.

So what is the New Politics about?

First – it’s about equal opportunities. Giving everyone, regardless of gender or race, an equal chance to participate.

And it is a different style of government as well. The new politics is more open.

Take the example of subject committees, each with a majority of non-Labour members, two-thirds chaired by a member of one of the other parties. Every fortnight, they question Assembly Secretaries and their officials on their actions – and they do so in public.

And they are much more than scrutiny committees. They take an active part in policy development. Committees are currently preparing reports on issues as diverse as post-16 education and training, nursery provision for three-year-olds, drug-prescribing in the National Health Service.

And anyone with access to the Internet can find out what is going on in the Assembly simply by logging on to the Assembly’s website.

Of course, the commitment to openness also brings challenges and responsibilities – for all parties in the Assembly, and the media too. Take negotiations with third parties, for instance – with the European Commission over the Objective 1 Programme, or even the Treasury over public expenditure and the Barnett Formula. There are dangers when we dissect and debate in public the twists and turns of such critical negotiations. It sometimes feels like trying to play poker with your cards face up on the table while the other players keep theirs to themselves as they always have done. We have to develop the maturity to cope with such processes and a greater sense of trust between parties and with our wider partners.

It will take time to grow into an Assembly which is confident and creative. This year for the first time we have had a debate about the budget. Previously, the Secretary of State would decide, with officials and with some discussion, and then announce the outcome. This year we had a process. We have set out our principles – and the Assembly has agreed them. We published a draft budget – and asked everyone in Wales to take an interest and to comment. Edwina Hart and I have gone through their finances with each Assembly Secretary and their officials. Each committee of the Assembly has been asked to comment and make suggestions about priorities.

The instinct has still been the easy one of asking for more cash – the easy knee-jerk reaction if you are an opposition, with no part in the decisions and therefore no responsibility. But as Aneurin Bevan said, “the religion of socialism is the language of priorities”. To have power is to have the responsibility to choose between priorities – to be included in the process means being included in the making of choices. And quietly this has started to work – of 33 requests or proposals made by subject committees of the Assembly, 29 were met by Edwina Hart when she published her first draft budget. Another two were partly met and two could not be met because they couldn’t be afforded. The attacks on her budget from other parties was predictable and sad. For it talked down their own involvement in a unique new process – they were attacking not the Labour Government of Wales but our fragile young dragon.

And it will take time – it seems – to persuade everyone that the new politics is also about partnership and co-operation – working with other agencies and groups to find the right solutions. There are three golden threads of partnership at the heart of the National Assembly’s activities. The partnerships with local government, with business and with the voluntary sector are uniquely enshrined in statute. And they are being transformed into reality, bringing voices from communities across Wales into the heart of government for the very first time.

Minority Government

Because of course leading a minority administration is not easy. I want to deliver on our promises to the Welsh people. I want to push forward policies that will bring about real change for the better. But I can only do so with the support of the other parties.

You may say: “That is a good thing. It requires you to build a consensus.” Fine. That is how Labour planned it. The difficulty arises when other parties put short-term political advantage before the consensus-building that the people out there – the voters – want to see….. when we get side-tracked into dealing with censure motions and other distractions.

When all the public see is a bunch of politicians fighting amongst themselves, it is hardly surprising that confidence in devolution as a means to deliver change is not high.

Perhaps part of the new politics is finding new ways of resolving conflict, and we can learn from others. Last year, with some of my family, I spent a holiday in South Africa with my daughter who works with children in Cape Town. I visited some of the prisons and the townships with local voluntary groups and community leaders.

They know a lot about conflict resolution in South Africa. Community workers in the cities and townships have had to seek out new ways of enabling people to work and to live together across massive divides. I met people from the Centre for Conflict Resolution at Cape Town University. They were working at one level with families and damaged children – at another with major social issues.

I was struck in particular when I visited the massive Polsmoor Prison. Forty young men who share a dormitory – many inside for serious offences, playing out their roles about messages of resisting crime and violence and drugs when they are released. They played out their own roles, the traditions and conventions of the gangs and local violence. And I asked to speak to some of them privately afterwards. I was a little cynical until I heard them talking with such conviction about their own feelings of hope. I felt chastened – almost ashamed.

By realizing just what a powerful injection of hope and determination was being provided in that miserable and unlikely environment I came to wonder why we inject such pessimism into the way we approach our far more manageable challenges. I was then a Minister at the Home Office, applying the experience to the fight against crime in Wales and England – but the message is even stronger when you apply it to our young dragon. Faced with such optimism in Polsmoor and in communities like Kyleshia or the Lost City …… how dare we breed pessimists in Wales.

If they can resolve such issues – or at least aspire to do so against the temptation to despair – can’t we do so too ? Thankfully we have nothing like those problems or those social divides to deal with in Wales. But in politics here too there is always a temptation to leap into the conflict model. Instincts are the same the world over. I want to get away from that. Stop the barracking and the point-scoring and the urge to oppose for opposition’s sake. Enable hope to triumph over experience.

The Assembly is not perfect – of course not. After just six months, how could it be? Why should it ever be? But we are making solid progress, and slowly but surely, we are making it work.

I remain convinced that the only way to make real progress is by building a consensus. That is what my leadership of the Assembly is all about.

Consensus: The Only Way

One area where a consensual approach has enabled us to make immense progress is with the Welsh Language.

Twenty or thirty years ago, it would have been unthinkable that we could establish a bilingual Assembly with broad support and acceptance on all sides. And yet we have done so. In the work of the Assembly, English and Welsh exist side by side. Members are free to use the language of their choice in debates and committee meetings. When questions are put to me in Welsh in the chamber, I answer them in Welsh, even though my fluency leaves a lot to be desired, – when I get going on Treigliadau people start to see a likeness to my fellow North Walian John Prescott. I do it to show an example and to send out a positive message.

As I walk the corridors of the Assembly, I hear Members and officials discussing business with one another in both Welsh and English. I believe we have created the first truly bilingual Welsh and English political working environment.

But this has only been possible because we have adopted a consensual approach to the language. There is no compulsion or protest. Those who have no Welsh themselves can see that it will not be “rammed down their throats”.

As a result, some of the most unlikely people have started to learn Welsh or are talking privately of doing so. I feel obliged to mention the name of David Davies here. Such progress would have been impossible in the confrontational atmosphere I can remember earlier in my political life. And to refer to a Conservative AM with approval – a young man who was Rod Richards’s rottweiler in our early days – is both fair and inclusive. That’s how far we have come.

This atmosphere of consensus must be extended to other aspects of the Assembly’s work if we are going to meet the challenges that lie ahead. It must be the hallmark of the New Wales, and I will continue to work to achieve it.

The Challenges Ahead

The first is the economy.

Wales has always struggled economically. Our geography, an over-dependence on heavy industry; pressures on the rural economy;; the lack of an all-Wales economic strategy… I could go on. But the truth is, at the end of the 20th Century our economy is still struggling – and it falls to the Assembly to bring about change.

The knowledge economy ….. the technological revolution ….. computers changing our lives. The idea isn’t entirely new – I remember Harold Wilson talking in Cardiff about the “white heat of technology” in the early seventies. But what was a gentle trickle back then is now a tidal wave of innovation and change and progress, transforming the way we work and live our lives.

And Wales has to ride this wave – to develop the knowledge, the skills, the confidence, and the vision, not only to stay afloat but to steer us into a more secure and a more prosperous future.

We have to do that by equipping our workforce, particularly our young people, with new skills and better qualifications. By expanding the Apprenticeship programme, we are being more ambitious than Scotland. We are providing extra funding to encourage 16 and 17 year olds to take time off work to study and gain extra qualifications

The Objective One money from Europe will provide an important boost to the economies of the most deprived areas of Wales and it is vital that we channel those funds in the most productive way we can towards building the new economy for Wales.

The second big challenge we face is tackling social deprivation. Poverty, ill-health, poor housing, crime, – these are social ills which have for a long time blighted parts of our rural and urban communities alike.

This second challenge is not an alternative to the first. We can’t create a Wales which is economically vibrant and successful if we don’t utilize the resources of all our communities and all our people – including those who are marginalised by ill-health or poverty. And we won’t be able to create long-term solutions to social exclusion without transforming Wales into a country which is concerned with the creation of wealth and prosperity as well as distributing it.

And the Third Challenge? Young People. The Next Generation.

I know it can sound like a cliché but this goes to the heart of my own personal and political priorities.

Before I went into politics I worked with unemployed young people, not least in the Ely area of Cardiff. Then I worked in the Docks area. They had a lot of problems those youngsters. Broken homes. Many lacked parental support. Some had been kicked out of school. Low self-esteem. Been on the wrong side of the law. No skills. We could help – give them the motivation, offer a chance. Then came the Thatcher Government. It destroyed that hope, closed the doors, stole their future. That stirred the anger that took me into national politics. This may be an academic contribution tonight, but let us not forget that anger along with the urge to create are the two mainsprings of political action. Anger was my motivation then as the desire to create is now.

Devolution – The Right Response

And it is devolution that gives us that chance. It is devolved power within the United Kingdom, with all the benefits and strengths that this relationship brings with it.

Now, I appreciate that there may be some people here tonight who do not sign up to this particular form of democracy. There are those who would like to see a different form of government in Wales.

The only question we need to ask ourselves here is this: What form of government best advances Wales’s needs?

Centralised Power in Westminster? Devolution or Separatism?

Let us be absolutely clear. Devolution is not some kind of no-man’s land, a half-way house between two clearly defined alternatives – integration and separatism. Devolution is a place in its own right.

We’re not helped by language here. Devolution is a word which relates to an act – the act of devolving powers. It’s perhaps this that gives it a slightly provisional feeling, as if it cannot possibly result in equilibrium. But as other countries like Spain which have decentralized have demonstrated, devolution is not just an act, a phase, it is also a way of organizing the governance of a country – or group of countries, if you will – which is as legitimate as federalism or the unitary state.

I agree fundamentally with Paul Murphy : We have settled the devolution debate. What he describes as “the settled will of the Welsh people” has strengthened since the referendum and since the upsurge of Welsh feeling with our official opening on May 26. Listen with care – not an upsurge of nationalist feeling, but of national pride – of Welsh confidence.

But while devolution is a place in its own right, this doesn’t mean it is static.

No. I believe in a dynamic devolution.

Devolution is a form of governance which can change and adapt to the changing needs of our country – just as the concept of the “independence” of the nation state has had to change and adapt over the last decades as globalization has transformed political realities.

It’s a form of governance that is rooted in a permanent, shared commitment – to Wales and to the rest of the UK – to combining the capacity to provide Welsh solutions to distinctive Welsh problems, with the strength which comes from being a part of the United Kingdom – proud to be Welsh and proud to be British.

Of course some things will change. We’ve already had changes like the new powers that have come to us already following the passage of the Health Act, for instance. But we would do well to remember that the devolution settlement happens to be the preferred choice of the Welsh people themselves. The majority of people in Wales – by some distance – want a system of devolved power within the United Kingdom.

Of course there are major issues to debate in our relationship with the UK government. But if we are to retain support as we work to create a better Wales, Wales and our Welsh Assembly have to be seen as a partners in creating a better Britain – not as a sort of Celtic Dick Turpin, all take and no give – all demand and no mutuality.

The concept of the warrior king, like that of the highwayman makes good drama, good television. But we have to ask what such models offer us in terms of nationhood today. I suggest that the arts of the diplomat and the statesman are those we need. A warrior king is simple in concept, but bloody uncomfortable to live with – whether you are a friend or a foe ! In our models of leadership and of Welshness, we need to be far more modern and sophisticated.

Lets remember, as we nurture our young dragon, that we have a long porous border with England – with a two-way traffic that we need to understand, not condemn. Let’s recognize the elephant that still lives next door. When we were arguing the case for the Assembly, I recall people in Wrexham asking about the impact. Would it mean cutting off from the neighboring economy of Cheshire and Lancashire ? What of the relationship with Merseyside – my mother and my grandmother went to Birkenhead in search of work, one as a seamstress, the other as a children’s nanny so I know that relationship.

Today, with ease of travel, our people go far across that border each day to work as others come into Wales. For them, the border between Wales and England is as invisible as the border between Ceredigion and Powys. And there is a danger that if the voice of Wales is shrill and self-centred rather than a voice of calm and self-confidence we will stir up the latent narrow nationalism of England.

What worries me is that Plaid Cymru appears to have rejected its former language of separatism without having found anything to replace it. Plaid members seem to speak of Wales in Europe but never of Wales in the United Kingdom – a concept it dares not mention. And yet this is the reality that Plaid Cymru has to face up to. And the sooner it resolves this dilemma, the better for everyone. Because at the moment we have an unreal debate, where Plaid is not saying it wants to break away, whilst still refusing to engage with the United Kingdom government in any constructive sense. That is not a sustainable position. Nor is it sensible to ask people to choose between being Welsh or being British.

I want to challenge the use of that outmoded term “the London Government”. It’s our Government too. A United Kingdom Government which is ours as much as that of the residents of London or Tunbridge Wells. Our Assembly is not a gift from a London Government – it’s a brave decision by the United Kingdom Government which represents all of us and which has kept a promise.

For some nationalists, the way through their dilemma has been to talk of being “Welsh and European” – well, I’m happy to be a European too, but it’s a narrower concept than that of our Labour tradition. While men from Wales served in the Spanish Civil War, in the fight against fascism, the fight against prejudice and racism went much wider. This year, we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Paul Robeson – a friend of Wales – while last year when Cardiff gave the Freedom of the City to Nelson Mandela, he was honouring Wales for our part in fighting Apartheid. Welsh and British and Internationalist we must be with pride. Let us also be part of Britain in Europe and support the vision of those like Glenys Kinnock who want to expand the European vision as an outward-looking vision rather than one rooted in protection. And there’s a challenge !

Let’s not fool ourselves. Self-government within Europe is not an option. The European Union is still a union of member states. Our European partners do not want to see a proliferation of statelets within the United Kingdom, the balkanization of one of their own members. They want to see a United Kingdom – like federal Germany or regionalised Spain – capable of presenting a common position in the Council of Ministers which reconciles the divergent interests of different parts of this idiosyncratic member state. A strong Wales in a strong United Kingdom – that is what devolution is all about.

The pressures of globalization are forcing the pace of change in countries and economies the world over. The correct response to globalization cannot be to look inwards, to cut ourselves off, to build new social and economic barriers between ourselves and others. Wales cannot bury its head in the sand.

The progressive response to globalization must be to reach out, to work with others, to pool our talents, so that we are stronger and fitter and better equipped to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Devolution gives us the security and the confidence to embrace change.

We are in radical times. Let’s remember that Keir Hardie and others at the turn of the century campaigned for a minimum wage and for reform of the House of Lords as well as a measure of devolution to Wales and Scotland. Those traditional socialist values have been delivered on in 1999 as the Labour Party celebrates its centenary. They have been delivered by a radical Government which is keeping to its values. They create the context for a radical government in Wales to deliver for the people of Wales.

That is the vision of the Party I lead – but it is a vision in which we seek to engage everyone in Wales and every party in Wales. That’s why we created an assembly designed for inclusive politics rather than the dictatorship of a majority.

Will it work ? Well, I am a co-operator – I believe in the Co-operative Ideal. It has been a year in which I confess I have frequently felt battered and beleaguered, in which I have often feared the damage that confrontational politics could be doing to our fragile young dragon, in which I have sometimes thought that too few in Wales appear ready for a mature and inclusive democracy. It has often felt like deep mid-winter.

But under the snow, in the committees of the Assembly, in some of the more surprising exchanges, I believe the green shoots of new democracy in the New Wales are starting to grow.

That is why I am optimistic. Despite the frustrations. Despite the problems. Despite the pressures. I believe Wales, with the Assembly, with the new politics, is well placed to take control of its future and make that future shine.

“It would almost seem”, John Davies writes, “as if the history of the nation is an endless journey back and fore between the mortuary and the delivery room”.

He might have added “and going nowhere in between”. In 1979 Wales didn’t even make it into the delivery room. In 1999 we made it. And now we have a healthy toddler – or a fragile young dragon, to return to my earlier metaphor. Our toddler, or young dragon, needs care not criticism, – needs to be nurtured not to be taken for granted, to be celebrated not abandoned for the chimera of separatism

The National Assembly is surely the delivery room for the next turbulent, exciting, creative, phase in Wales’s history.

Another great Welsh historian, Gwyn Alf Williams, memorably asked the question: “When Was Wales?”

The answer used to be “never !” – but now we have a new answer.

Wales is here. Wales is now. Wales is the future.

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