Unfortunately, I replied, I had always been opposed to such a body, and had seen no reason to change my views in the period that had elapsed since St David's Day 1979, when my fellow countrymen and women had rejected the Callaghan government's proposal by a majority of four to one."Jobs for the boys," I added, to leave no misunderstanding about my position. I refrained from adding that I am not a great joiner anyway; politely decline to add my signature to letters protesting against this, that or the other; and generally adopt a punctilious (some might even say a priggish) attitude towards any engagement in party politics.
At this stage, the Welsh White Paper had not come out. When it did, on Tuesday, my opposition was reinforced. It is simply not a serious political document. Some history: Wales did not have a Secretary of State in the cabinet till 1964, when the first occupant was that old warhorse Jim Griffiths, an excellent minister under C R Attlee but then coming to the end of his career. In 1951-57 the Home Secretary was also Minister for Welsh Affairs; in 1957-64 the position was held by the Minister of Housing and Local Government.
After 1979, Wales became quango country. Successive Conservative Secretaries saw these bodies as a convenient means of giving away chiefly English taxpayers' money to various Welsh projects. Naturally all these bodies had to be staffed. By 1997, there were 19 of them. Jobs for the boys, indeed! The theory was that the Assembly was going to take over most of the functions of these various quangos and of the Secretary of State himself.
Some hope! The number of what the White Paper dubs "executive bodies" is to be reduced merely from 19 to 14. And the quangos will carry on prospering, even if in a more complicated way: "The Environment Agency will be sponsored jointly by the Assembly - to whom the Agency will report in Wales - the Department of Environment...and the Ministry of Agriculture...The Assembly will need to develop effective working relationships with government departments in such cases." Make of that what you will.
Certainly the Assembly will dish out more jobs for more boys, in addition to those whose membership of that body itself provides them with pounds 78,000 a year: "The Assembly will be responsible for making appointments to the Welsh public bodies that remain when it is set up, other than those operating under Royal Charter, where it may acquire the power in due course." What is nowhere explained is how a chamber of 60 members (20 of them chosen as party hacks from a central list) will be able to take these and numerous other executive decisions imposed upon them except by electing a Welsh cabinet or by adopting a committee system similar to the one in local government.
No such difficulty arises with the Scottish Parliament, because an executive council is clearly specified - in effect a cabinet, with a chief minister, other ministers and law officers. The Scottish White Paper is a serious document largely because the Scottish people are treated seriously, as adults; while the people of Wales are regarded as children, sometimes to be indulged, often to be humoured but always to be controlled. The Welsh White Paper is an insult to Wales, with numerous hortatory paragraphs about what the Government "expects" the Assembly, in any event powerless, to do in various circumstances. The Scottish White Paper, by contrast, if anything flatters the Scots, choosing to look upon them as persons of almost Aristotelian political sagacity and tolerance. The Government may view them differently when parliament and council choose to go their own way, in a different direction from that prescribed by the bossy government we now have at Westminster.
It was certainly anomalous for Scotland to have its own legal system but no legislature of its own. It was, I think, unique in this respect among the nations of the world. I have always thought it curious likewise that the Law Lords sitting in Westminster should be the ultimate authority on the interpretation of Scots law, even if two or three of them are Scots judges who have been promoted to the Lords. This anomaly will presumably persist. Even so, I was surprised at the number of domestic functions which are to be transferred to Edinburgh. I can see why abortion and drugs have been reserved to Westminster; though, as Glasgow and Edinburgh are now with Miami among the drug capitals of the world, I should have thought there was a case for allowing the natives to look after their own.
There is an extraordinary but understandable reluctance to draw any parallels with the 50 years of the Stormont parliament, which was also a devolved body. What happened then was that the West Belfast (as distinct from the West Lothian) question was resolved not only by diminished representation for Northern Ireland but also by Northern Ireland members' keeping out of mainland affairs, and mainland members' keeping away from Northern Ireland - a division enforced by successive Speakers till 1969. Nothing in the White Paper about that.
Perhaps the most interesting part of both documents is the preface by Mr Tony Blair summarising the Government's constitutional proposals: a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly; an elected mayor and a new authority for London with "more accountability" in the regions; the incorporation into UK law of the European Convention on Human Rights; freedom of information (Mr Blair does not specify an Act); and a referendum on the voting system for the Commons.
As I wrote last week, I thought he had quietly forgotten the last of these. But no. There remains, however, one curious omission from this otherwise exhaustive list: reform of the Lords both by depriving hereditary peers of their right to sit and vote and also by investigating methods of making membership of the Lords more open and representative. The second part of the reform is necessarily vaguer and more speculative. But the first part is clear enough. Yet Mr Blair does not choose to mention it, though he says that the Government is "pledged to clean up and modernise British politics" and "to reform Parliament".
I would quote Sherlock Holmes on the dog that did not bark in the night if it were not so hackneyed. Maybe Mr Blair simply forgot to mention it. We shall have to wait until the Queen's Speech of 1998 before we know for certain. Mr Blair, at any rate, has the excuse - if you like, the justification - that the party comrades have quite enough to occupy themselves with for the moment without bothering their heads over their lordships' House.Reuse content