The forward march of devolution halted

The forward march of devolution halted? Wales after the lockdown.

(This was published in the Institute of Welsh Affairs magazine Agenda in May)

COVID-19 doesn’t respect borders. And nor does UK Government messaging. On 10 April, the ‘UK Government in Wales’ tweeted that the first drive-in testing centre in Wales had been opened, at the Cardiff City stadium. We had known this was happening for some time, of course, as it had featured in Welsh Government press briefings, and it was obvious to anyone cycling past. But for those of us who thought that health was devolved, this was a signal that we are in new territory: a UK government stepping on the Welsh Government’s toes.

I was told subsequently that Deloitte’s had landed a contract across the UK for 50 drive-in test centres, though Public Health Wales is now operating the one at Cardiff City and it was the Welsh Government which was blamed when the centre was shut on Easter Monday. It makes sense of course for the Welsh Government to join in on UK-wide procurements, not least to avoid price-gouging as has been seen in respect of PPE. But the subsequent propaganda from the department formerly known as the Wales Office suggests a deeper agenda. The COVID-19 crisis is intensifying a process already visible in the period following the December UK General Election: a post-Brexit activist unionism, intended to redraw the evolving constitutional settlement of the previous 20 years.

May 2020 marks the point at which Wales has been living with what the French call cohabitation for a decade: one party in power in Cardiff Bay, another at Westminster. The next period is likely to test the resilience of devolution. We could be heading towards what I call ‘Devolution In Name Only’ – or DINO for short. And the DINO-saurs have a strategy.

This strategy is based on proposals that the think-tank Policy Exchange has been developing for a radical constitutional re-ordering: re-branding the Supreme Court as an Upper Court of Appeal, essentially nullifying its role as a constitutional court, strengthening ministerial oversight of judicial appointments and limiting judicial review,  the re-establishment of Parliamentary sovereignty but with the executive’s powers reinforced, limits on the Human Rights Act and on the application of the European Convention on Human Rights. Welsh appointments to bodies under the control of the UK government have already been politicised.

The agenda isn’t limited to constitutional matters: there is an emphasis on UK government investment, particularly in infrastructure. Central government funded initiatives such as the City Deal have been used to build stronger relationships directly between the UK Government and Welsh institutions including local authorities. A ‘Western powerhouse’ model, bringing together Cardiff, Newport and Bristol, was launched to undermine Welsh Government economic plans.

In the General Election, the Conservatives promised to deliver the M4 Relief Road, without the power to do so. The stage is set for a new War on Wales, but perhaps through a more subtle approach than the Cameron years. Michael Gove recently penned an article in the Western Mail stressing what he said was the UK Government’s additional £2 billion investment in Wales to help address the COVID-19 threat, the role played by the army in coordination, cooperation between the UK and Welsh governments, and reiterating the five UK Government tests rather than the seven questions outlined by the First Minister, Mark Drakeford.

This is an activist infrastructure-driven and clientelism-based Unionism designed to undermine and minimise the role of the devolved governments. COVID-19 offers further opportunities effectively to dilute the already inadequate inter-governmental arrangements. The devolved administrations may attend COBR meetings but are observers only on SAGE, while the PM’s chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, is a participant. England’s chief medical officer has, apparently, the role of chief medical adviser to the UK government.

This agenda is aided of course by Wales’s fragmented public sphere. Paradoxically, Welsh journalists have been doing a better job of holding the Welsh Government to account than UK journalists have been doing with the UK Government. The dominant UK narrative has become neither the excess and preventable deaths nor the failures in planning and logistics but the Boris Johnson personal soap opera. It is possible to be pleased that the Prime Minister recovered from a dangerous virus and has a new-born son without succumbing to journalistic sycophancy. Meanwhile far more people in Wales read the Daily Mail than the Western Mail, and the Daily Mail’s own gung-ho story of flying in PPE to aid the NHS sets the ‘we can beat this’ tone.

The wider UK narrative – first Brexit, now COVID-19 – has drowned our national public sphere in Wales for the last four years. Welsh Government initiatives will get UK media attention when they differ from or are seen to pre-empt decisions of the UK government, such as announcements on closing schools, ruling out an early exit from the lockdown, or setting out the key questions governing the decision on whether the lock-down should be eased. Occasionally stories will surface on programmes like You and Yours about how Wales is being more generous in investing in support for homeless people than is England. But the narrative of difference cuts both ways: so if England is testing more care-home residents or staff, then that becomes a stick to beat the Welsh Government, whatever its efficacy.

The lockdown has seen the emergence of popular responses such as the weekly ‘clap for the carers’, originally for NHS workers but intended now to capture all those in caring roles. It has become very clear that when people speak of ‘the NHS’ they are applauding the efforts of the NHS across the UK, no matter that academics write these days about four NHSs with different operating structures. This ‘natural patriotism’ is a UK phenomenon, an expression of solidarity. In the period of Brexit I once wondered if Unionism was capable of producing an emotional response in its support. We have seen that emotional response in the backing for the NHS as a symbol of the best of us – and that doesn’t stop at the Welsh border. Though emotion for the BBC may be a long time coming, its necessity as a public service has become ever more evident, with record television audiences for the Prime Minister and the Queen. The attacks on it from the Tory right, have largely been confined to occasional outbursts focused on specific programmes like the Panorama exposé on PPE.

The UK narrative has of course dominated our news coverage of the COVID-19 crisis, with the statements from the UK Government press conferences, however inane many of those have been, providing the broadcast news lead. Facilitated by a centralised media, bolstered by a slavishly loyal tabloid press, this renewed activist unionism and its possible endurance after the lockdown should not be underestimated. Unless, of course, the inevitable public inquiry, potentially so different with evidence from the devolved administrations certain to be heard, actually cuts through with direct and sharp criticisms of the failures in planning and delivery and the U.K.’s excess death exceptionalism.

Coronavirus Curriculum Planning 2020-1

This is essentially me thinking aloud about the four post-grad modules I am scheduled to teach next academic year. Two weeks ago I said that if I was still here in the autumn – and I am planning to be:

Whatever happens, if I am here in the autumn, I will I know be teaching the social, political and economic consequences of coronavirus on at least two postgrad courses I lead.

In fact, I now think I will be teaching it on all four modules. All my teaching, aside from guest lectures, is in the October-January period, so I need to start some outline preparation. Here goes as I brain-dump some initial course thinking in a public value business school.

Government from the Inside – From the Minister’s Viewpoint (PLT435)

You can find a link to the module overview here. It is essentially an overview of the Ministerial life, from appointment to leaving office. It looks amongst other things at Appointment and the first 100 days, Ministers in Cabinet, as departmental leaders, in the Chamber and Committee, working with and against the Opposition, Ministers and the Media, pressure groups and ministers, evidence for ministerial policy-making, leaving ministerial office. It covers UK and devolved ministerial life.I am planning a book for Palgrave Macmillan based on the course which I have now taught for the last three years.

Students are assessed through an end-of-term essay. These are on topics they choose and are always interesting. Last year one student elected to look at Norman Fowler and the Aids Crisis, which has some parallels with today’s crisis. If I took a coronavirus lens I guess I would look through the course at how the virus has disrupted the marking of Boris Johnson’s 100 days in office; how COBR (A) has worked in co-ordination, including with the devolved administrations, how scrutiny of evidence has developed in Parliamentary committees, how pressure group and media criticism has influenced ministerial policy, and the role of daily press briefings in crises, the collation of evidence in an emerging crisis and the building of ministerial discursive capacity, Opposition input in the crisis, and maybe some futurism about ministerial reputations in the crisis and their likely scorecards after leaving office.

I am already collating materials, from press reports to parliamentary inquiries and government documents, which includes much of the advice that went to SAGE. (To be fair to the UK government, a lot of material has been published in respect of the evidence base and their assumptions). There is also a considerable amount of material on managing crises in the interviews with former ministers on the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series. No question then that coronavirus will feature on this module.

International Business Management (BST448)

This is one of the core modules on Cardiff Business School’s MSc. in International Management. I have been teaching this module for the last two years and it has had a significant ‘tech’ focus, which has enabled the exploration of themes around globalisation, based on my recent research. In postgrad terms it’s a large module with about 140 students, a very high proportion of them from China. Who knows how or if this will change next year? The COVID-19 outbreak has sparked all kinds of writing about the future of globalisation, networks, re-localisation, etc. The COVID-19 outbreak also lends itself to a straightforward introduction for management students to PESTLE analysis.

There are significant opportunities here obviously to look comparatively at governmental and political responses, business impacts in different sectors, the role of technology in surveillance of the disease (and obviously surveillance more generally), and how the disease may affect international business development, including global value chains. It may allow students to bring their own country by country observations to the forefront.

Think I will definitely be teaching COVID-19 and its impact on the the global economy this course, but it may require some re-writing.

Leading Policy and Delivery (BST652)

I was involved in co-developing our new part-time MSc in Public Leadership . This autumn I will be teaching the module about leading policy into delivery over three sessions. I guess that COVID-19 will become one of the cases that we will interrogate as it will be directly relevant to everyone’s immediate experience. Our students come from a variety of public service backgrounds.

Unlike the ministerial module above, the focus will be more about the impact on public service delivery. So I can see us covering its impact on the relationship between the making of policy and its implementation on the ground; thefeedback loops between frontline delivery and policy-making; collaboration between services,  both devolved and non-devolved; integration of third sector in delivery; what this means for target-setting, capacity- building, resilience planning, governance.

Much of this would have been discussed on the module in any case. But there is quite a lot to plan for here. And I think the agenda will expand as time goes by.

Strategic Planning and Innovation (BST680).

This year we began teaching a postgraduate Diploma in Healthcare  Planning in Wales. I am one of two academics teaching on the Strategic Planning and Innovation module. To a degree, our emphasis, as the NHS Wales Deputy Chief Executive, Simon Dean, said at Cardiff Business School in 2019, is that what matters most is the planning, not the plan. Though this was devised before the COVID-19 outbreak, we already had considered planning for unexpected emergencies and crises and ways in which governments did this in a variety of spheres, from terrorist outbreaks to a no-deal Brexit. COVID-19 forces consideration of previous planning exercises for pandemics.

This module from my perspective probably needs some adjustment but less overall than the others, as the key themes are there in outline, but need drawing out with reference to the current crisis, and the evidence materials published by the UK Government already mentioned above are directly relevant.

That was a brain-dump on behalf of my course planning. Now I need to allocate time for teaching preparation for each of these modules.

 

Coronavirus – Living well is the best revenge

As a 62 year-old asthmatic with ropey lungs I have been apprehensive about Coronavirus for some weeks, and the news from Italy over the last week or so intensified my worries.

Today, one conference at which I was to give a paper in April (Political Studies Association in Edinburgh) has been cancelled. Last week their expressed view was that they were going ahead. Cardiff University has now taken the decision on the other one where I was due to give a paper out of my hands – PUPOL in The Hague at Leiden University –, saying ‘all work-related travel outside the UK should be postponed until further notice unless it is essential.’ I suspect PUPOL would have been cancelled anyway.

We are waiting on the UK government’s decisions over closures and further social distancing. Obviously Ireland made its decision to close schools etc today. Yesterday, Denmark, where our son lives, took that decision.

My 90 year old mother has been in and out of hospital over the last four weeks, so that has been my main concern as I have been visiting her in hospital, and when she was out last week there were a series of medical and care calls to undertake, before she went back in on Sunday.

My mother’s care and the need to visit her in hospital means that I cannot do what Colin Talbot has done and self-isolate, or ‘cocoon’ as Colin prefers, but from what I know of Colin’s medical conditions they are much more serious than mine. But I have been giving active consideration to that, given the way COVID-19 targets the lungs. We haven’t been stockpiling toilet rolls but our cupboards and freezer have the necessary basics to avoid shopping if we had to. Today I noticed local shop-keepers wearing plastic gloves and using sanitiser after customers touched card machines and counters, and who can blame them.

We also have childcare responsibilities with our grand-children – days spent with them are a bonus to life.

I am currently due to give a lecture on Monday to 2-300 students as a guest lecturer on another course, but there is no reason why the materials couldn’t be delivered on-line, and that is the same case with a guest lecture the following week to a smaller number.

The charity I chair, the Cardiff City Community Foundation, has its annual Foundation year events over the weekend starting tomorrow, as we celebrate how Our Club Changes Lives. We have been reviewing all our activities – and our risks – over the last week in the context of the advice from Public Health Wales.

This is a year in which we were lucky enough to have a concentrated period of holidays in May and June – a wedding in Spain, an educational visit to Sicily, and then the Euros in Rome for which we are fortunate enough to have tickets. How many of these will now go ahead is anyone’s guess. UEFA is meeting to discuss whether the Euros are postponed for a year apparently.

Whatever happens, if I am here in the autumn, I will I know be teaching the social, political and economic consequences of coronavirus on at least two postgrad courses I lead.

If I am here in the autumn. I plan to be, but the truth is no-one knows what outcomes will be. I am sick of hearing about people who have died being described as elderly or having ‘underlying health conditions’. Every coronavirus death is a tragedy. No-one should be dehumanised and no death simply excused away as due to the individual being ‘elderly’ or having ‘underlying health conditions’. I have underlying health conditions. So do millions.

We are living with uncertainty, in a way that few of my generation and those younger have ever experienced. Indeed maybe only those with experience of living through the war have anything similar to compare it with.

I think the advice from the UK government will now change to a more intensified set of social distancing recommendations every few days. I have confidence in the scientists, but I am keeping an eye on what is being said in Italy in particular.

The declared number of cases is not the true number of cases, as the scientists said today. 500+ cases officially in the UK, but more like 5-10,000 in the population as a whole, and they are no longer going to be testing cases in the community, but keeping testing for those in hospital already.

They are, without saying it, planning for the worst, and unlike with swine flu and avian flu, where preparations were made for the worst case, we have practical evidence in Europe of what that worst case looks like.

New Statesman article

The New Statesman has published this article from me on the Tories’ new ‘activist unionism’. Below I republish it with links.

 There is a new orthodoxy on the left – the notion that Brexit will inevitably mean the break-up of the Union. Scotland will secede. Northern Ireland will vote to reunite with Ireland.  These things are indeed possible. But equally possible is that we end up in a post-Brexit creaking UK able still to cling together through a new state overhaul driven from the centre.

Some attention has been given post-election to the Conservative plans for a constitutional commission. But less focus has been given to the significant plans being put together for a re-servicing of the Union. The Policy Exchange think-tank has called for ‘a Grand Strategy to modernise the United Kingdom.’ This is an activist Unionism of a kind only glimpsed before.

Since the 1970s, there have been two significant modernisations of the UK state. The first, the neoliberal Thatcherite agenda based on a hollowing out of the central state, with new central agencies, restrictions on local government’s freedom of manoeuvre, privatisation and deregulation. The second, the New Labour modernisation of 1997-2010, including devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, the Good Friday Agreement, the Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information and the Supreme Court, with centrally-driven targets for service delivery in England. We are now on the cusp of a third modernisation, outlined in the Conservative manifesto, reinforced in the background notes to the December Queen’s Speech, and fleshed out in a series of policy papers.

Some of this pre-dates the Johnson government. The Dunlop Review of UK Union Capability was established under Theresa May with the objective ‘as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union….to consider how through its institutional arrangements it meets the challenge of strengthening and sustaining the Union in the future’ . But the Conservative Manifesto and Queen’s Speech make it clear that this is now part of a strategic programme.

The Conservative Party has usually had a strong focus on the possible uses of state power, even when deregulating and privatising. Alastair Campbell’s second volume of diaries record an observation of the late Alan Clark that Conservatives were fascinated with him and the Blair project because they recognised a real enthusiasm for power and its uses. The Conservatives now have at the helm someone who understands the uses of state power. Dominic Cummings has, says Rachel Wolf, one of the authors of the Conservative manifesto, been thinking about the UK state for twenty years. Cumminsology, as Alain de Botton called it recently in the New Statesman, involves a focus on the need for a more efficient and modernised state machinery: and a profound fury at the inefficiencies of existing state procedures (which many who have served in governments will share).

Cummings, and his former boss Michael Gove, are often under-estimated by some on the left who prefer caricature to analysis. As I wrote about Gove in 2014, ‘he is a deeply serious, and deeply ideological politician, whose objective is shifting the political agenda strategically’. Ditto Cummings. He is, as Tony Blair’s former political secretary John McTernan wrote in July, ‘a man with a plan’.

The Conservative state modernisation agenda is extensive. If the range of Policy Exchange papers on the Constitution, the Judiciary and Whitehall is accurate, its possibilities range from limiting the powers of the Supreme Court – possibly even re-branding it as simply an Upper Court of Appeal, to remove the sense that it is a constitutional court – to an infrastructure modernisation programme for the UK, a re-casting of central institutions to oversee the Union, with the engagement of devolved authorities such as Mayors within England to address the UK/English delivery confusion, to a series of Whitehall reforms (some of which are pretty uncontroversial) and the creation of a UK form of the American defence-linked research agency DARPA, one of Dominic Cummings’ long-held ambitions .

Some of the approach to an activist unionism has already been rolled out in Wales, where the Wales Office has essentially been re-branded as the UK Government in Wales, central government funded initiatives such as the City Deal have been used to build stronger relationships directly between the UK Government and Welsh institutions including local authorities. A ‘Western powerhouse’ model, bringing together Cardiff, Newport and Bristol, was launched to undermine Welsh Government economic plans. Welsh appointments to bodies under the control of the UK government have been politicised, as Policy Exchange suggests should happen across the UK. In the General Election, the Conservatives even promised to deliver the M4 Relief Road, without the power to do so. The Queens Speech promises a cross-border Marches deal, and many other actions.

This activist unionism may not be enough. The latest state modernisation programme may well do nothing fundamental to resolve the post-Brexit challenges of the UK. It may simply leave us with the latest modernised version of what Tom Nairn three decades ago called Ukania. But no-one should assume that the break-up of the UK is inevitable, or that Gove-Cummings haven’t thought about these things. They have, and their previous experience in respect of English schools shows that they understand the uses of state power and are capable of fast and far-reaching action.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve loaned my vote to the Greens.

My membership of the Labour Party lapsed in March. I’d decided months before that I wasn’t going to be caught out by an automatic renewal and cancelled my direct debit.

I might still have voted Labour, and the choice not to would have been harder in Wales if Derek Vaughan had stood for re-election or one or two of the other Labour candidates like Mary Wimbury, whom I’ve known for years, had been top of the Labour list.

But ultimately I decided not to vote for the pro-Brexit anti-Semitic shambles that the Labour leadership has allowed the party to become. In 2017 I voted Labour, and my vote has been waved around with that of millions of others as an endorsement of the leadership’s plans for a better Brexit. Well, stuff that. We won’t get fooled again.

When my postal ballot arrived two weeks ago, I returned it immediately with a cross against the Greens. Caroline Lucas has been the outstanding Parliamentary leader for a People’s Vote that I’ve now marched for several times in London. Green MEP Molly Scott Cato has done great work on the regulation of Facebook in the European Parliament, and I’ve just finished writing a book on this subject.*

There’s a bigger reason for voting Green of course, and that’s to do with the ceaseless drive of capitalist consumption that threatens our planet and human and other life on it. I’m voting for my grand-daughters and their future.

I know others will have made different choices, and there are good people standing for a number of the other anti-Brexit parties. I’m not saying the Greens are perfect, but strategically I’d like to see them to do well in these elections and in 2021 see them sitting in our National Assembly.

I’d like to come home, Labour friends, but hey, have you got work to do. If Labour enables Brexit I won’t be back.  If Brexit happens, and we end up in Ukania, then I’m not sure what future the unionist parties have in any case. The Leavers don’t care for the Union, after all. If we have to face life after Brexit, then other political choices may have to be made.

There’s no joy in this, by the way. Only sadness.

Ukania beckons, and the far-right is on the march. Labour leadership could have pointed the way to a progressive alternative. Instead, it ducks the key decision of our time.

*For Labour, both Jo Stevens and Ian Lucas have also done brilliant work on this subject in the U.K. Parliament, let me say, in the most exceptional Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry I have ever seen. But that’s another story. 

Remembering Sarge, one year on

We lost Carl a year ago today. My Radio Wales tribute that day can be found here.

Once again, I want to thank Felicity Evans for her sensitivity in interviewing.

I won’t be posting more on this as I expect to be giving evidence at the Inquest in a couple of weeks time.

The historical significance of Carwyn Jones as First Minister

Carwyn Jones’s announcement on Saturday that he was standing down has taken time to sink in, and only now are people beginning to weigh up the immense contribution he made as First Minister.  I believe that he will be regarded as a historically significant First Minister and I am glad that he had the opportunity to announce his departure amongst friends and family at Welsh Labour conference in Llandudno.

Where Rhodri Morgan consolidated a devolution project that was very fragile when he became Welsh Labour leader, as I said on the Radio 4 Today programme this morning, Carwyn’s role has been to develop the role of the National Assembly and the Welsh Government. We now have a law-making Assembly with tax-raising powers. It was Carwyn’s bold decision to take forward the referendum in 2011, with the support of coalition partners Plaid Cymru, despite the foot-dragging of the Conservative-led coalition government at Westminster, and it was he who articulated the new name of Welsh Government for the executive body after the 2011 election.

Carwyn pioneered the tax-raising role of the institution with his personal support for a levy on plastic bags that was a pioneering policy now adopted by other parts of the UK. He did that despite scepticism, and some hostility, in the business community.

It is also often forgotten that Carwyn was the first First Minister who was home-grown: in other words, he had grown into political life within the National Assembly, not having served at Westminster like his predecessors. That gave him a healthy distance from what can be a stultifying obsession with Westminster parliamentary sovereignty and an openness to new constitutional developments.

His personal commitment to education, firmly articulated in his 2009 leadership campaign, paved the way for further investment and a substantial programme of school improvement, as well as underpinning the decision to protect Welsh students against £9000 tuition fees.

He has been capable of bold decisions with clear vision, such as the purchase of Cardiff Airport, now expanding with new routes across the world, and new and innovative legislation in areas such as organ donation, introduced despite controversy and articulated clearly by Carwyn himself.

He gave space for a new approach for public service reform, which Carl Sargeant developed and carried through in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, that means public service bodies in Wales have to come to the table to work through their public service delivery on a cross-boundary basis. The Violence against Women legislation, which Carl championed, Lesley Griffiths introduced, and I took through the National Assembly, will be seen as another significant achievement.

In the first decade of devolution the taps of public sector investment were turned on: but five months after Carwyn’s election as First Minister a Conservative-led coalition was in office implementing austerity policies which forced difficult choices on all of us in government. Carwyn provided leadership, not least on the economic front, where programmes like Jobs Growth Wales delivered more successfully than Westminster-based work programmes. Where the Conservative-led coalition scrapped the Remploy factories, the Welsh Government introduced a scheme to support employers who took on Remploy workers.

When the steel crisis hit in 2016, and the UK government proved dilatory and unable to act, Carwyn ensured a strong Welsh response which protected Welsh jobs at Tata. That response in 2016 helped turn around Welsh Labour fortunes in seats in Wales which had seemed in the early months of 2016 to be under threat from the Tories.

In electoral terms, Carwyn’s successes in 2011 and 2016 outdid, albeit in very different circumstances, those of his predecessors: and he made a significant personal contribution to the 2017 UK Labour campaign which led to the recapturing of Cardiff North, Gower and Vale of Clwyd.

In respect of Brexit, he identified earlier than most the pivotal importance of the Irish border issue, based on his family connections through Lisa and his own study of the subject.

In his conference speech, he expressed the view that the last few months have been the darkest of times. Bluntly, the last five and a half months have been miserable, indeed hateful. They have of course been darkest of all for the family and close friends of Carl Sargeant, but there has never been any question that they have taken a huge toll on Carwyn and his family. He will know above all the need in Welsh Labour for the healing to commence, and that his decision to stand down will now enable people to come together, as Jack Sargeant has passionately and bravely articulated, in pursuit of a kinder politics.