By Dr Meirion Morgan, Chair of Gorwel
One of the hats I wear is that of charity trustee: I chair ProMo-Cymru, which owns the Ebbw Vale Institute; I chair Aneurin Leisure, which runs the bulk of Blaenau Gwent Council’s major leisure facilities. I’m proud of both charities and their staff for remaining bright, optimistic and focused as they face the challenges imposed by changing public finances and the impacts of those on the broader economic landscape in Blaenau Gwent.
Through both charities I’ve spent a lot of time in Blaenau Gwent over the last few years, and in the process got to know some of the political stalwarts in the area. In a lengthy discussion with one, I was told that many people on the ground see Westminster having legitimacy and the same people have an ambivalence towards the Assembly. Blaenau Gwent may not represent Wales, but those opinions are echoed in discussions I’ve had with others outside of Blaenau Gwent. To me, this ambivalence represents a disunity in the population; one of many, no doubt some would say.
Recently I attended a Future Senedd event in which Professor Laura McAllister and Elin Jones AM outlined possibilities for a future Senedd. They expertly and deftly answered questions, particularly around the findings of the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform that showed an increase in the number of Assembly Members is necessary for the Assembly to carry out its functions effectively. An issue, to my mind, of this Future Senedd consultation is that it’s predicated on there being no ambivalence – or, at worst, a limited ambivalence – towards the Assembly. That is, it’s predicated at the very least on a broad unity on opinion around the need for it and the developments proposed.
Of course, polls have shown that there is broad support for the Assembly. Polls also show, however, that people believe that there is no need for more AMs. It’s a result that’s conveniently overlooked by many, some of whom no doubt believe that the democratic process that led to the Assembly’s creation has in turn created an unarguable legitimacy for it given the support shown in the polls.
However, the referendum on the EU has shown, if nothing else, the ephemeral nature of democratic legitimacy. And while abuse has been hurled by at those who voted Leave – and I include myself as a “hurler” – the Remain camp has a lot to answer for. I cannot help but think that many who believed in the EU and poured scorn on the Leave campaign felt the vote that cemented the UK’s membership of the EEC conferred an absolute and incontestable legitimacy on the UK’s membership of the EU.
So, what does that mean for the Assembly? Well, in my experience, the “liberals” who talk about progress in Wales are sometimes remarkably illiberal towards the ambivalence spoken of by my political stalwart chum in Blaenau Gwent. Brexit has provided a template on what can occur when Expert versus The People narratives are put to the vote, one that’s seemingly dismissed by the liberals in the “Bay Bubble”. Indeed, the usual abrogation occurs where the ills of Wales are deemed to lie in either a disinterested (or even malevolent) Westminster or in the failures of media to enlighten Wales’ population.
In the same way there’s talk of an EU elite divorced from the realities of many people in its member nations, so the Assembly risks being home to a similar elite in Wales. Engagement of the sort seen in the Future Senedd consultation is to be welcomed and applauded – but only if the people attending these events are truly representative of the broader population, and candid feedback is both encouraged and embraced. I’m far from convinced that’s the case. The institutions associated with government – the Assembly, elected representatives, the civil service, arms-length bodies – have shown themselves to be extraordinarily sensitive to even the most politely framed criticism and questions.
The Bay Bubble, and its often self-congratulatory liberal-ish stance, seems terribly out of tune to the events that led over decades to the disenfranchisement of many and the Leave vote. An arrogance of liberals may result in the death knell being sounded for the Assembly twenty years from now: I don’t see that recognised in the Future Senedd consultation.
The viewpoints and comments expressed in this piece represent those of the author and not Gorwel as an organisation.