Here’s an idea of what’s been going on this week in the world of devolved politics.
1) WAG passes new language law
The Welsh Assembly unanimously passed a law this week which made Welsh an official language in Wales, putting it on an equal footing with English. It also means that public bodies and some private companies will have to provide some services in it.
The measure was part of the One Wales Agreement between Labour and Plaid and has already been described as “historic” and “momentous”.
It certainly wasn’t easy: more than 70 amendments were proposed and the debate was expected to last four hours. In any event, it didn’t and the AM’s got off lightly, coincidentally in time for the Welsh Political Awards that evening.
2) Scottish transport is snow joke
Apologies for that. It had to be done.
Stewart Stevenson resigned this week over the handling of the severe weather in Scotland, despite having the backing of First Minister Alex Salmond.
Stevenson had been under pressure for his handling of the crisis and he said: “I could have done much more to ensure the public, who were caught up in a difficult and frightening set of circumstances, were better informed”.
Labour leader Iain Gray claimed that Scotland had lost confidence in Stevenson.
Salmond says that Stevenson was wrong to quit but that Stevenson, who had offered to resign earlier in the week, was worried about becoming a “weapon” for the opposition. Keith Brown has since been named as his replacement.
3) Should corporation tax be cut in Northern Ireland?
David Cameron has been urged to cut corporation tax in Northern Ireland alongside the bailout that is being given to the Republic.
The UK will be giving £7bn to the Republic of Ireland as part of an international bailout package, but some, particularly First Minister Peter Robinson, have said that this is unfair given the Republic’s much more competitive corporation rates.
As the Belfast Telegraph points out, it boils down to the fact that British taxpayers’ money could be used to kick start an economy that has a major tax advantage over a region of the UK on its border.
However, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson has warned this week that cutting corporation tax could mean a cut in the block grant to Northern Ireland of £310m.
This led to Northern Irish Finance Minister Sammy Wilson describing such a cut as “totally unattractive” and Wilson said that the government would have to come up with other ways of dealing with the budget shortfall of a tax cut.
4) Wales is UK’s poorest nation
Figures from the Office of National Statistics have shown this week that Wales is bottom of the prosperity pile in the UK.
Scotland’s GVA is 98.8% of the UK average, while Northern Ireland’s is 79.1%.
Ieuan Wyn Jones, the Welsh Deputy First Minister and Minister for Economic Development and Transport wants to transform the business in Wales and said: “What we want to do is create the right conditions for the private sector to flourish”.
The figures mean that Wales might qualify once again for the highest level of European funding.
5) Irwin Armstrong resigns
The Chairman of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland resigned this week following the announcement that his party will not be fielding any candidates in the upcoming Assembly elections.
The decision not to field any candidates comes as part of an agreement with the Ulster Unionist Party, and the statement from the UUP can be read here.
Armstrong claimed that he had been assured by Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that the Conservative Party would fight the election, but when it became apparent that wouldn’t be the case, Armstrong came to the conclusion that his position was no longer tenable.
Despite earlier winning the support of Alex Salmond, Scotland’s transport minister Stewart Stevenson has tendered the First Minister his resignation letter. Stevenson has faced mounting criticism this week over his response to the heavy snowfall which paralysed parts of Scotland.
The Herald’s Ian Macwhirter offered a defence (of sorts) in his column titled: ‘There are aspects of the big freeze that warm your heart‘, but on the whole Stevenson was becoming a media and political liability for the SNP, as he all but admitted in his letter. Salmond hit out at the political game-playing by opposition parties at Holyrood last week, but Brian Taylor’s blog suggests Stevenson was running low on allies in any party.
Scottish Labour have said the resignation should have come sooner, and will see this as a significant scalp. Iain Gray summed up the gist of the criticism here, mostly referring to the situation last Monday:
- Why was nothing done to stop more traffic joining motorways already blocked?
- Why were motorways not closed to get them cleared?
- Why at 4.30pm was the minister saying roads were clearing when they were not?
- Why no emergency meeting until 9pm, when some people had been stuck for 12 hours?
- Why take until 11.15pm to announce a helpline number, do it on TV and then get the number wrong anyway?
- Why is Mr Stevenson still the Transport Minister?
(There we go, a whole post on snow without one pun about being ‘cast adrift’ or ‘snowed under’!)
Followers of Welsh politics may be forgiven for missing the rather underwhelming unveiling of the Tory shadow budget today.
In a curiously quiet fashion, the party revealed what would be cut or protected under its governance.
As promised, the key Conservative priority is health spending, which will be ring fenced, leading to higher cuts in all other areas than in the Labour-Plaid draft budget. The differences between the two spending plans are laid out here:
WAG’s plans/Welsh Conservative Alternative
Health and Social Services -7.6% NIL
Social Justice and Local Government -7.4% -12.5%
Education, Children & Lifelong Learning -8% -12%
Economy and Transport -21.3% -30%
Environment, Sustainability and Housing -21% -25%
Rural Affairs -12.7% -15%
Heritage -13% -20%
Public Services and Performance -24.4% -30%
Central Services and Administration -19.1% -25%
This is largely what was expected, but figures at the WAG may now be gleefully rubbing their hands at the prospect of pointing out deeper cuts to be suffered in all departments bar health under a Conservative administration.
There are some other key differences which may feature heavily in debates in the coming months.
- A public sector pay freeze for salaries over £21,000.
- Further postponements in the Trunk Road building programme.
- A further reduction of 1.5% in the local government settlement.
- The replacement of Communities First with a voluntary sector “Big Society” programme.
- No further increase to offset student fees.
Seeing how these decisions play in an electoral campaign will be interesting. In austere times, the public sector pay freeze may go down well with much of the electorate. Similarly, a reduction in the local government settlement may be easy to defend.
But further postponements to road building, already a bleak prospect after the slashing of capital spending, may be harder to advocate.
Similarly, the choice to both embrace the “Big Society” and scrap the Communities First project, and to leave students at the mercy of fee-raising universities may bring the party some vocal critics. It may also leave them open to comparisons to their already unpopular Westminster counterparts.
This, at least, gives the parties some clearly contrasting platforms to campaign on come election time.
Irwin Armstrong, the Chairman of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland, has today announced he will be standing down from his post following an agreement between his party and the Ulster Unionist Party.
The UUP released a statement concerning their relationship with the Conservative Party in which they announced that the Conservatives would not be putting forward any candidates in the Assembly elections of May 2011.
Following the annoucement, Mr Armstrong said that his position was untenable, and that he would have to think long and hard before renewing his membership of the Conservative Party:
The decision will effectively disband the Conservatives in Northern Ireland, as the sole reason for a political party is to contest elections.
Mr Armstrong said that he had been told by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, that the Conservatives would be fielding candidates in the election:
He rang me up and said it had been agreed we would be running candidates. In politics you talk to your colleagues and you accept that’s what they mean. In this case, somehow, that decision was changed and I wasn’t consulted.
Mr Armstrong became Chairman in June and wanted to see a clean break from the UUP following the disastrous decision to field joint candidates in all Northern Irish constituencies at the general election which saw them win none of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats.
Even that decision didn’t go off without a hitch.
But regardless of this, the decision might tell a lot about the relationship between the central party and the devolved party.
The ongoing Wikileaks release of US diplomatic communications has had its first major repercussion for devolution. The release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, was one of the most rancorous disputes in the Scottish Parliament’s history.
The latest files reveal that Britain was worried about its interests (widely thought to be oil exploitation deals) in Libya if Megrahi was allowed to die in his Scottish jail. They also say the Scottish Government badly misjudged the public reaction to the release, which turned out to be very negative.
But how will the governments in Edinburgh and London respond to this? Alex Salmond may choose to describe this as a vindication of his stance that he was always a straight broker in the affair. But the claims he was out of his depth in international politics and attempting to use the issue for political gain might be embarrassing. The critics of both Salmond and Labour in Westminster who say the release was about an irresponsible deal over business interests will find plenty of ammunition. We’ll keep an eye on things as they develop later on Wednesday.
I’ll finish for now with a brief extract from that first cable, as it gives an insight into how the US is beginning to see Scotland as a devolved nation:
Comment: Devolution and Foreign Policy
This is the first time that HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) – and the USG (United States Government) – will face a foreign policy decision made under the constraints of devolution, and the channels that we establish now will set a precedent for future cases. In creating these channels, we will need to take into account sensitivities on the sides of both HMG and the Scottish Executive, while ensuring that whatever position we may want to convey in the Megrahi case gets to the right officials in a timely manner.
Language bods like myself may be excited about today’s vote on the Welsh Language Measure in Cardiff Bay.
This legislation, if passed, will increase the prominence of the Welsh language. Some large public providers will be forced to offer a full Welsh service. And a Welsh language commissioner, tasked with making sure Welsh speakers can access services in their native tongue, will be created.
This was always going to be a long, drawn-out affair. The law, with over 70 amendments, promised some arduous discussion and plenty of nit-picking for the AMs considering it.
There has already been some drama earlier today, with Plaid AM Bethan Jenkins (pictured) tabling an amendment she says will ensure Welsh would gain official status as the national language, something language campaigners argue the original document fails to ensure. As Adrian Masters argues this may ruffle some feathers in her own party.
And as can be seen from the passion witnessed over the fate of Welsh-language broadcaster S4C, one’s native tongue is a contentious issue.
Mind your language
So should Welsh be a priority? When it comes to assembly spending, it could be argued schools and hospitals should trump bilingualism in a country where many cope fine with English. And politicians may feel uncomfortable with revelations of spending on language services, such as yesterday’s in Northern Ireland.
But language is often key to national identity. As this article notes, countries such as Germany already grapple with the dominance of English as a lingua franca, and fears about the erosion of nationality are tangible.
And Welsh, which already acts as a secondary language in some ways, is much less rooted in the day to day goings on of the country.
Protecting the freedom of Welsh speakers to be just that is an aim few would want to attack.
This is the achievement of a long-held goal for Plaid Cymru, enshrined in the One Wales agreement. Whether Ms Jenkins’ actions have dampened their joy slightly is yet to be seen.
I was lucky enough to have a piece I had written about the royal wedding and its impact on the Welsh election hosted on the ITV Wales blog today.
But in case you missed it (and for the sake of some royal coverage on this blog), here it is:
Those feeling glum in austere times may have perked up over the news of Prince William’s engagement to long-term girlfriend Kate Middleton last month. The couple has been together for eight years, and will bring the glamour of a royal wedding to 2011 as spending cuts begin to bite across Britain.
But some brows may be furrowed over the announcement of the wedding’s date, 29 April. Apart from the very real possibility of a beautiful spring marriage and a confirmed extra bank holiday for the public, this also means the big day will fall less than a week before the Welsh Assembly Government elections.
Is this a bad thing? In the midst of a frenzied election campaign, voters may be happy for a break from the slogans and calls to arms. It may allow politicians to relax before the final pre-ballot push. And it is not unlikely Wales’ very own First Minister Carwyn Jones will be invited to take a day off from canvassing to attend the royal ceremony at Westminster Abbey, allowing London and Cardiff to put aside various differences for a brief moment.
And the thrill of royal nuptials may bring some life to an otherwise stale campaign.
The bad news
But there are worries that as Prince William ties the knot with Ms Middleton the election could almost pass by unnoticed, affecting turnout and the already meager profile of the WAG.
This is not just a question of door-to-door campaigners getting lost, or enthusiastically involved, in the street parties bound to hit 29 April.
Media coverage is a bigger question.
Take for example November 16, when the couple’s engagement was announced. Did anyone miss it?
News channels were saturated with coverage of the royal event, and a number of meaty stories from the world of politics sunk under the weight of this. David Cameron’s decision to remove his personal photographer Andrew Parsons from the Downing Street payroll, updates on disqualified Labour MP Phil Woolas’ legal appeal and news of compensation pay-outs to former Guantanamo Bay inmates all disappeared from the bulletins.
So when stories from the heart of Westminster are dwarfed by the media’s royal obsession, how does the WAG, already obscure compared to its London neighbours, get any attention at its most critical moments?
If the election loses vital coverage in its final days, turnout could sink to a record low. This could damage the Welsh Assembly Government’s attempts to be seen as a credible force in politics, and skew the way the Welsh are represented by their assembly if only a select few reach the ballot.
But how influential is the media in this?
Some trumpet the strength of their own hand in elections, though this is dubious. The Sun, a popular red top, famously attempted to influence the 2010 British election by loudly switching their support from Labour to their rivals. But this was less bold than it seemed, because it reflected the general trend of public opinion.
Similarly, Welsh readers tend to read British nationals rather than Welsh rags such as, say, the Western Mail or the South Wales Echo. So there already seems to be a greater interest in the United Kingdom, rather than a number of devolved ones.
Whether any of this will affect the usual, and less avid, voters among us is yet to be seen. But don’t expect Carwyn Jones to grace many front pages on Kate and William’s big day.