30 October 2009

A Welsh interlude…

Once, in a bored moment, I indecisively channel-hopped into the midst of the Welsh Assembly during its questions to the First Minister, Rhodri Morgan. While there are only 60 AMs, and thus, the quantity of hot air and Foulkesome baboonisms generated must needs remain lower than Holyrood – I was struck by how placid the exchanges were, how small the room in the Senedd felt and the un(party)political tenor of many of the questions fired at Morgan. Contrasted with wur ain First Minister's Questions from yesterday with its cackling interactions, low abuse and spice of drama – the discourse in the Senedd seemed profoundly different. Some of this can be distilled to the personal. Words such as docile do not instantly snap to the end of the synapses when the Maximum Eck’s name is mentioned. Salmond is more of a flyting fan, himself. Yet even when in the days when wee Jack McConnell had a job and used to shave – he and Nicola used to enjoy ritually gouging at one another in like style.


With this in mind, I went along yesterday to a talk from the selfsame (soon to be ex) First Minister of Wales, Rhodri Morgan. The subject of his disquisition was, perhaps predictably, asymmetric devolution in the United Kingdom in general and the Welsh example in particular. Various things particularly struck me about the man himself – and his arguments – but perhaps a little detail about his central thesis.


Argued Morgan, the “breathing space” devolved arrangements gave to the “Celtic fringe” were a profound triumph of British constitutionalism and what he takes to be its traditions of pragmatism, willingness to muddle through, leaving frayed threads here and inelegant dangly rag-ends of principle poking out there. Contrasting this with formal symmetry and public orderings associated with papery constitutions – article, subsection, clause – Morgan poured (or at least dropletted) scorn on the idea of seeking out answers to constitutional questions in the fustian, moth-gnawed pages of a “constitutional text book”. Part of this, I think, draws on a sensible strand of thought which says – we may arrange our norms like this, but change will mosey over the best efforts of controlling drafters to pre-imagine the fate of a country’s political character. Even textualising and materialising a country’s formal goals cannot be to set them in crystalline form. Along Jeffersonian lines, we might argue that this is so because of the “usufruct of the living” over the present, but also simply because the idea of a solid and immutable constitution is the stuff of wild, tyrannical impulses and the fantasy that flux and fortuna can be excised from our experience of existence.


Another element of this notion and location of “British” pragmatism and virtuous muddle – as opposed a commitment to abstract themes which is generally associated with Continental European mentalités – was emphasised by Morgan by relating an amusing, if apocryphal anecdote – derived from an encounter which the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had with a group of French diplomats. Concerning some pressing issue of international concern, Albright told her Gallic listeners that she thought she had laid the capstone – secured the final piece to complete the puzzling picture – and that past turmoils in the region would now diffuse. Assuming an air of French languor, when Albright had completed her presentation, one of these diplomats apparently said to her, “Madame Albright, that is all very well in practice, but how will it work in theory?”



Cue a bit of anti-Froggish guffawing from the crowd. For consistency, Morgan maintained this stance when prodded by a questioner on the so-called West Lothian Question. Although he admitted that if he were a member of Westminster now, he’d entertain personal qualms about voting on issues not directly screwing over his constituents – he pointed out the massive dominance of English members in parliament meant that England prevailed whatever, and hence, rather got the representations and decisions it deserves. What was perhaps most striking about Morgan, however, was firstly how consistently and comfortably he located himself and the political experience of devolution in terms of Welshness, alluding to a Welsh “social democratic” discourse within which (implicitly) English and Tory rhetoric about a small and self-limited state – where less is more – does not obtain. Educated at Oxford and Harvard, Morgan had a sort of plain charm. Not a firework wit, not a shimmerer – but a sort of dogged seriousness which transmitted itself as authenticity.


In common with many indolent Labour politicians, there were several citations of “Labour voters” and a continuing insistence that Labour political failures did not owe to political transformations where these chattel voters exchanged their red livery for blue – but instead was associated with the impatience and boredom these self-same red serfs experience when Labour in government does not live up to its promise and bacon is not brought home. Morgan talked as if the anticipation of return of these Labour-branded souls was governed by some iron-law of political necessity.



What is of interest to me about that argument is that we hear it echoing up from these Welsh valleys to our own heather-frogged glens. Labour sitting, waiting, watching carefully – as the tide seeps out, so it will return with a glad rush of foam and electoral promise. Adjusting by some regular mechanism, this organic metaphor seems to allow for little potential for radical change, for discontinuity and breaking with traditions – and the ending of hegemonies old and rotten.


In that context, and knotted in with his argument about devolution as a triumph of Britishness, I posed the waggish question why Scotland does not seem to be drawing on those resources of Britishness in quite the way he described? His answer, for my money, was rather queer. Devolution, he suggested, sounded like a complex argument. Emphasising the goodness of “Britain’s clout in the world” – while simultaneously lauding more localised decision making – echoing a Clintonian dicta about the 50 states being science laboratories in which creativity and between which creative thefts could operate – quoth Morgan, is a difficult concept to sell. In the context of the SNP, he argued that independence is actually an easier notion to flog to a gormless public. Equally so arguments to ditch devolution altogether and return to some imagined Olympian simplicity of representation in Westminster. Opinion polling tells us that this argument is total guff – and that the public understands perfectly well and can make its judgements on levels of governance which would seem, statistically, to favour devolution, more devolution and continuing membership of some sort of broader, British state. Interesting, however, that he should account for Labour failures in Holyrood in this fashion.



One final note and then I’ll end. In my ignorance, I’d not heard of the All Wales Convention, chaired by Emyr Jones Parry. This Convention is exploring new law-making powers for the Assembly – and will produce a report on the subject on the 18th of November, just a few weeks away. Although he did not comment on whether he would support such powers and changes in the constitutional phizog of Wales – Morgan did have this to say. Bend your ear and strive to detect a Scottish echo. Assume that the aforementioned Convention produces some suggestion of legislative powers. These would, argued Morgan, have to be put to the public in a referendum. But, paused he, what of the economic circumstances? Eyes on the penny’s lads, some might cry, decrying constitutional speculations. Sound familiar? A counterargument, suggested Morgan, would be that constitutional changes and realignments of authority in Welsh public life may assist rather than hamper responses to the recession and scheming for the upturn. Wait, now, I’m sure I’ve heard something similar to this somewhere before…



Although Morgan is on his way out – and I don’t have the local knowledge to tell whether Welsh Labour and London Labour would be up for such further devolution of legislative energies – it does look like the makings of yet another embarrassing tale to waggle provocatively before the benches of their Scottish cronies in Holyrood.

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