Monday, 16 November 2009

Who wants a referendum on more of the same?

The attempt last week by the Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, to undermine the All Wales Convention before its Chair, Sir Emyr Jones Parry, has had a chance to present its recommendations, was contemptuously undemocratic and disrespectful of the will of the Welsh people, whatever the Convention believes that to be.

Yet, ironically and for the wrong reasons, if Hain manages to stop a referendum seeking primary law-making powers for the Assembly being held sooner rather than later, he might do the Welsh people a favour, although it won’t suit the short-term objectives of the political elite in Cardiff Bay.

Hain reckons there’s no point in holding a referendum because the present settlement with Westminster, of which he was the architect, works well enough, needing only “fine-tuning to make it quicker and better”. Anyway, he warned the Western Mail, a referendum would only be lost, potentially setting back the devolution cause, of which he is the champion, by years.

In the opposite corner, Dr Barry Morgan, Archbishop and Chairman of Tomorrow’s Wales, a cross-party, pro-referendum, pro-devolution political pressure group whose members Hain dismisses as “the chattering classes”, countered with a statement that the current settlement is “unsustainable and should be replaced by a proper parliamentary government”.

He may be right, but the point at issue here is not the effectiveness or otherwise of the Governance of Wales Act 2006. It’s whether the respondents who were motivated enough to give their opinion to the All Wales Convention are really an accurate barometer of demand for a referendum given that Wales has never shown more than a half-hearted commitment to devolution at the ballot box.

The turnout for the 1997 referendum that brought in devolution was so low (50%) that barely one in four of the electorate actually voted in favour (75% either voted against or abstained). But since all of the main political parties had a manifesto commitment to devolution, and since marginally more votes were cast in favour (50.3%) than against (49.7%), it went ahead anyway. This is what passes for ‘democracy’ in Wales.

Most Welsh voters are, to use the political vernacular, ‘disengaged with politics’. Most are not 'voters' because they don’t vote. Only 43% voted in the 2007 Assembly elections, barely 33% voted in the European elections and it’s likely that less than 50% will vote in next year’s general election.

When the majority abstains from voting, there is something so seriously wrong with the political process that a referendum on more of the same would be considered unconstitutional anywhere else. We need to understand this problem and address it before holding a referendum.

The Power Enquiry, part of which was conducted in Wales in 2005, dismissed ‘political apathy’ as a myth. It found that the way politics is structured and conducted in Britain had not kept pace with the needs of our society and the values, interests, expectations and lifestyles of ordinary people.

In a BBC poll conducted on election night in 2005, 77% of non-voters said that voting would not change anything and 65% said they did not trust politicians. A recent Guardian poll reported that 67% believe that big business has more influence than government over their daily lives whilst 71% of 16 to 25-year-olds believe that voting will make no difference to their lives at all.

Although it might be popular to believe that all politicians lie, embezzle their expenses, break promises and pursue nothing but their own careers, their real failure is in whittling away our faith in democracy.

The Assembly was founded on the confrontational representative model established centuries ago by the English ‘Mother of all Parliaments’. We weren’t given a choice. The political class didn’t think to ask whether we’d prefer a deliberative assembly in which we could all participate, if we chose to, an Assembly perhaps more in keeping with Welsh Nonconformist traditions and the realities of the world in which we now find ourselves.

But if we’re to call ourselves a democracy, if we want to govern ourselves rather than be governed by a remote political elite that has little sympathy for the Welsh condition and little interest in improving the quality of our lives, we need a different model. Why settle for a second rate Assembly when we could strive for the world’s most progressive democracy?

I’m in favour of a referendum but not the one sought by the Welsh Assembly Government and not under the present circumstances. I’d like to see a more wide ranging referendum on a written constitution that sets out the rights and responsibilities of every Welsh citizen and establishes a demarchy, an inherently fair, dynamic and stable form of democracy that does away with professional politicians, political parties and even elections.

Decisions in the Assembly would then be made by ordinary people selected at random to serve for a temporary period, rather like jury service, guided by an independent civil service and judiciary and with policy implemented by a professional executive.

But first I’m looking for volunteers to re-engage the Welsh electorate with this fresh approach to politics. Candidates will be selected by lot to contest every seat in the 2011 National Assembly elections. First we’ll win a majority in the Senedd and then we’ll then hold a referendum. Assuming consent from a majority of the electorate, we’ll conclude a final settlement with the Westminster government before disbanding.

Achieve all this and we'll have given the Welsh people a fresh start. There will be the opportunity, at last, to build a sustainable economy with full employment, to establish a better education system, a more efficient health service, affordable housing and a more secure environment with a better quality of life.

Peter Hain and rest of the political class will no doubt dismiss these ideas as utopian and warn you against anything but their way of thinking. But then they would, wouldn’t they?

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