Before the referendum tomorrow, ask what devolution has done for Wales

The result of the Welsh Assembly referendum will not only decide whether the assembly gains significant legislative powers; it will also be a verdict on the success or failure of devolution. In the following article, Aled Edwards argues that post devolution Wales has become a more inclusive and welcoming nation, defined by a commitment to equal opportunities and human rights.
Aled Edwards
2 March 2011

Tomorrow, Welsh people will be given the chance to extend the powers of the National Assembly for Wales. The result, to be announced on Friday afternoon, will not only decide whether the assembly gains significant legislative powers; it will also be in part a verdict on the success or failure of devolution. In the following article, the Reverend Aled Edwards argues that post-devolution Wales has become a more inclusive nation, with a strong commitment to equal opportunities and human rights. 

For some, it wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did. The evidence is there. Post-devolution Wales has become a more inclusive and welcoming community increasingly shaped by a shared commitment to equal opportunities and human rights. That shaping has given devolved Wales its defining characteristic and has sometimes taken it beyond Westminster’s comfort zone. Continuing to constrain this dynamic by voting no tomorrow poses a moral question.

In October 2009, a vigil was held on the streets of Newport against a protest planned by the Welsh Defence League for the following day. Such a broad multi-ethnic event, with the support of the Assembly’s Faith Communities Forum, had never been held in Wales before. When it was affirmed that all had a right to be different and had an equal right to belong, Welsh flags were raised high in celebration. For some who were there, the moment defined a generation.

A year earlier, research published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission - while highlighting that some prejudices still persisted in Wales - provided a largely encouraging picture. The Who Do You See? report showed that the people of Wales have a strong sense of togetherness and are largely comfortable with people from all backgrounds.

Much has been said about a growing economic inequality between Wales and the rest of the UK. This matters but comparisons are odious.

In the early 1930s Wales had a death rate eleven points above that of England and Wales combined; forty years later, in the early 1970s, that disparity was almost exactly the same. This didn’t make the NHS a failure – after all, people lived longer. It just shows that British society remained doggedly unequal. 

Since the 1970s, the income inequality gap in Britain has widened. It peaked particularly during the early 1990s. In this, Britain has the ignominy of being a world leader. It is this grotesque inequality, fuelled by offshore tax havens worth over ten trillion dollars to some of the world’s richest individuals, that divides Britain. It hasn’t been devolution’s efforts to redistribute wealth and to relieve such a massive inequality. Unchecked, this inequality will divide even further and have a disproportionately adverse affect on Wales.

The groundbreaking book The Spirit Level, reviewed here in OurKingdom, may offer a helpful insight into why Wales has forged a distinctive equalities and human rights agenda since 1999. It’s not rocket science. The book’s authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, found that even within the most materialistic of cultures, people want society to move away from greed and excess towards a way of life more centred on values, community and family.

When the National Assembly came into being – with its unique constitutional requirement to pay due regard to equal opportunities and human rights – it functioned as a magnet attracting partners in civic society. They discovered Welsh government, each other and a shared agenda. Muslims became friends with Christians. They forged relationships with others motivated by values rather than faith. Out of this dynamic flowed a plethora of policy initiatives.

This fusion began to re-shape Welsh society at speed. As early as 2000, the Assembly passed secondary legislation placing a duty on schools to exercise their functions with due regard to equal opportunities – several years ahead of the GB gender equality duty legislation.

Events fuelled the fusion. There were calls for a powerful Children’s Commissioner following the publication of the Waterhouse Report into child abuse in north Wales. There were even louder calls for the Home Office to uphold basic human rights following the outrageous placing of asylum detainees in Cardiff prison.  Significantly, following the way in which the UK ministry of agriculture handled the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, powers over animal health issues were transferred to the Assembly. The powers genie was out of the bottle right from the beginning – driven by tragic events and people, not by politicians.  

Alongside this dynamic, communities were changed. Improved community relations led to significant improvements in the reporting and prosecution of race and disability hate crimes. 

In response, Westminster lent legislative support creating a Children’s Commissioner and an Older People’s Commissioner but it also constrained Wales, especially around issues relating to the Assembly’s commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Paul Chaney of Cardiff University’s independent research for the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2009 highlighted the emergence of a Welsh equalities agenda distinct from Westminster and more suited to the everyday needs of Wales.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level may explain why Welsh First Ministers have good approval ratings.  It isn’t because the Welsh have an exceptionally high pain threshold. It’s because we are all affected very differently by the income differences within our own society from the way we are affected by the differences in average income between one rich society and another. Equality within Wales matters.

Wales may have been exceptional in having so many women AMs. Indicative of a deeper change, it now has a mean-based full time gender pay difference that’s around half that of the UK.

Although immigration isn’t devolved, Wales has become a world leader in training over 130 refugee doctors through its groundbreaking scheme enabling most to be employed within the NHS. While granting the Welsh language official status, Wales has become a leader within the UK in enabling displaced people to learn English.

That certainly wasn’t supposed to happen!

The Revd. Aled Edwards is chair of Displaced People in Action and is a member of the Wales Committee of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, having served as the Wales Commissioner for the UK Commission for Racial Equality (2006-07).

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