A parliamentary democracy is more than a name

An election should be an opportunity for renewal. After an overlong five years our Senedd election certainly changed the faces and the atmosphere in the chamber. But it should have been an opportunity for more fundamental change rather than simply re-arranging the seating.

It is disappointing therefore that we end the first term after this election in exactly the same position as we found ourselves prior to dissolution.

All too often debates around Senedd reform focus on the number of members and the electoral system. That’s fair enough. I fully expect this Senedd to finally end the agony of this debate by moving to a larger institution elected by STV.

And Amen to that.

But there are other – and potentially equally as important – issues to address. How we conduct our business and the culture within the institution needs to be addressed. Often overlooked, it is these issues which determine how our democracy looks and how it works.

Some of these issues have raised their heads in recent days. Andrew RT Davies is absolutely right that the Senedd is “stale and subdued”. We certainly need more vitality but it’s not meant to be stand-up entertainment either. My concern is that all too often it fails to deliver the scrutiny and the accountability that any democratic system demands and requires of its legislature.

And quite frankly it is not good enough for the Presiding Officer to respond to this criticism by saying that she will support change. Most would expect her to be an advocate and a leader of change.

But my comments today are about the institution rather than individuals.

In many ways Andrew’s suggestions mirror the points that I have been making for some years. I asked a question on removing the dreadful computers from the chamber two years ago. I well remember Steffan Lewis refusing to turn on his machine. They are an eyesore, a distraction and they need to go. I also agree with Andrew on four year terms. I asked to be allowed to present a Bill to this effect before the last election but my request was refused. Last year I raised the issue of government statements being made to the media before they are made to the Chamber. But let’s be clear. It’s not the government’s role to demand this accountability. It’s the job of the legislature to provide it. The Presiding Officer needs to look to the Speaker of the House of Commons and learn some lessons in holding the executive to account.

At the same time the relationship between the body that runs the Senedd, the Commission, and Members is at its very lowest ebb. In my 14 years as a Member I do not remember that relationship being as difficult as it is today. Decisions such as those on the various policies and procedures that are put in place to help us do our jobs and represent the people of this country have been variously suspended or reviewed or reversed in recent weeks. A Commission in touch with the day-to-day work of Members would not have proposed such policies in the first place. For me the snooping and spying authorised by the IT policy is the final straw. It is now possible for the Commission to read emails that I send to constituents and emails between myself and staff in my office. They can access all my documents, speeches, my committee prep and even access this blog post. These are intrusive surveillance powers not possessed by the police and or even the security services. And they need to go.

And to be fair there is disquiet on all sides of the Chamber. The Labour Group took the extraordinary, and in my experience unprecedented, step of writing to Elin Jones to express the deep unease felt by many Labour Members about this direction of travel. It is disappointing that we have received only warm words in response.

So where do we go from here? I agree that more urgent questions would mean greater scrutiny and would mean Ministers addressing issues of the moment rather than weeks later. But questions also have to be questions. I sat through “questions” last week where sometimes the “question” took nearly two minutes to be read out. This is not scrutiny either. Questions need to be sharper and so do ministerial responses. I’d start by stopping members reading out their questions. We should all be able to speak without notes for 30 seconds or so.

The second issue is that of how we conduct our debates. I know of no member who finds the current situation satisfactory. Hour-long debates shoe-horned into Wednesday afternoons with each one of us allowed only five minutes to make our case satisfy no-one. I would propose that we have a single longer opposition debate – at least two hours – and allow Members the opportunity to speak for at least ten minutes. This would allow us to exchange views and actually debate across the chamber rather than listen to speeches which were written days in advance being laboriously read onto the record. We also need to allow Members to debate and not only to question government statements where we can properly engage with government policy. Debate should mean exactly that. And I do not believe that debates can be held virtually. Politics demands more than that.

My final issue for today is that of our committees. This is where the hard work of scrutiny takes place. Where witnesses and ministers can be cross-examined and where we can get to grips with policy or government delivery. Why then is our ability to scrutinise and question government being undermined in this Senedd?

Last Wednesday with no fanfare and noticed by no-one except the faithful we elected the Senedd’s committees for the next few years. What was not announced was that these committees will move from a weekly pattern of meetings to a two-weekly pattern. At a stroke the time available to scrutinise and hold the government to account is halved. 

This is important. The Finance Committee has already written to say that it will be unable to deliver on its statutory obligations to scrutinise the government’s budget. For other committees with a larger legislative load the time and space available for policy scrutiny will be reduced still further. This will also mean that the ability of the institution to deliver private member’s legislation will also be reduced. A small institution will be made smaller.

And this is not the government’s doing. It is a decision of the Senedd itself.

Committees need far greater independence to set their own timetables, determine when they will meet and how they will conduct their scrutiny. And Business Committee should be established on the same basis as other committees, publishing its papers and transcripts. We need the transparency of light being shed on these decisions.

The Senedd needs reform. And that reform needs to reach into every part of how we manage our affairs. The Senedd needs to be at once a more considered and a more spontaneous legislature. The days of politics like colouring by numbers are over.

A matter of life and death

Over the years I have sought in this blog to discuss various things – issues which interest me or issues where I want to say something on policy, politics – or even culture. I have never sought to create a commentary on Welsh or UK or international politics and policy or a history of our politics. The blog was, I’m afraid to say, selfishly, created to provide me with the opportunity to speak directly to the reader. And if there are people out there who enjoy it then so much the better. It may be an arrogance to assume that people will be interested but no-one is forced to follow the links either.


This blog isn’t about any of that.

It’s about me.

Or perhaps to be brutally accurate it’s about my death.

I am painfully aware that I do not look like a runner. Not only do I not have the athletic build that anyone would associate with endurance sports but perhaps more importantly neither do I have the determination to train to be so either.

But there are a few places where I like to run. My two favourites are along the river in Bute Park in Cardiff and above Trefil outside Tredegar. Bute Park is one of the great urban parks of not only Wales or the UK but of Europe or the world. The humiliation of being spotted gasping for air and wheezing by friends (and occasionally foes) is nothing when set against the lovely urban environment with those easy pathways following the river or past the wide playing fields. Trefil is completely different. I park by the lay-by opposite Top House – the old Quarryman’s Arms – and run (if my staggering can be dignified in such a way) up past Duke’s Table to the top of the Dyffryn (or Dyffryn Crawnon to give it it’s full name but to us it’s the Dyffryn) and then across to the entrance of the Quarry. In total it’s a 8km round trip. And happily the return trip is downhill.

On Friday evening I had been working in Cardiff and was going to head out of Cardiff and go straight to Trefil for a run. But for some reason I decided to have a quick run in Bute Park before getting into the car. That unthinking decision saved my life.

I have little memory of Friday evening. For most of the day and the week I had been helping out with food distribution and supporting people in Tredegar and other parts of Blaenau Gwent. I had returned to Cardiff to see my partner and to catch up with some other work. I got changed and went straight out. I remember thinking how lovely it was in the early evening spring breeze. I remember thinking that it would be nice to do this run and then head back to Tredegar after a quick shower. I remember discussing with my partner, Anna, whether we should order a curry and our plans for the weekend. I remember thinking about what needed doing with the Coronavirus in different parts of the borough. I had spoken with both the health board and the local council during the day and had a list of things to do.

Somewhere in park – I still don’t remember where exactly – I saw some old friends of mine and stopped to have word. I hadn’t seen Mike or Thoma Powell for years. I was pleased to bump into them. It was very nearly the last thing that I ever did.

Apparently – and I have no memory of this – I stopped and took a breath, said hello, and then collapsed. I know because of the cuts and bruises on my head and face that the collapse was total and immediate.

It turns out that I had suffered a cardiac arrest. At that moment my heart had simply stopped beating. It had ceased to function. The most reliable pump that nature has ever constructed simply stopped working.

There was no notice. No pain. I had no indication either during the day or previous days that there was anything wrong. I felt fine. I actually thought that it was a pretty good run. No record-breaker but not overly difficult either.

The rest of this account is largely what I am told happened.

The cuts and bruises on my face and head tell me that I was unconscious before I hit the ground. I have no idea if my heart had already stopped – I assume so.

Mike and Thoma called 999 and immediately started CPR. The 999 operator guided another person to the nearest defibrillator. He cycled to it, picked it up and brought it across.

The ambulance arrived quickly and I understand that it was the paramedics who used the defibrillator to restart my heart. But that task would have been futile without the quick thinking and urgency of Mike and Thoma.

I have no real memory of anything else that evening. I seem to have memories of things. Lights and shouting. Urgency. Noise. I also know that I was completely unable to respond to any of these things. I was utterly helpless.

Saturday is largely the same. I remember nothing. I can only assume that I was unconscious most of the day. I understand that Anna, managed to get a bag of supplies to me at some point during the day. I do have some memory of her waving from a distance. I was connected up to various machines and feeling in extreme discomfort. I know that I received and replied to some text messages. But I also now know that medical staff were forced to ask Anna to give consent on my behalf for some procedures because I was not able to give reasoned consent myself.

I lay in bed listening to people discussing me.

There must be an elocution school for cardiac surgeons and airline pilots. In his utterly calm, confident and reassuring voice the surgeon told me exactly what he was going to do to me.

He also discussed the impact of what had happened both in short and longer term. He described the treatment and what I will need to do in the future to avoid such a thing happening again. And then he got to work. First an angioplasty and then a couple of days later a series of stents.

And a few days later I’m sitting here in hospital and writing these words. We all talk about the NHS and it may well have its faults, but at a time when it is dealing with the biggest health crisis in our lifetimes it can also save the life of an overweight middle-aged man with a vision of himself as championship middle-distance runner.

The best way to give thanks of course is not to waste the gift that has been given. Mike and Thoma, the paramedics and the staff in the Heath Hospital have given me the gift of life for a few more years.

Overwhelming I’m feeling a profound sense of gratitude to everyone who stopped to help, friends who have texted and contacted me over the last days and to all those people who took care of me in hospital. Together they have saved my life and enabled me to write about this.

A very British revolution

Last Tuesday afternoon I sat in the chamber and listened to the debate on the regulations which will pave the way for the formal repeal of the Law Derived from the European Union (Wales) Act. For those fortunate souls who have not been subjected to the whole of the debate on Brexit, this is the continuity legislation which became law last summer. It was passed to protect the settlement in response to the publication of the draft EU Withdrawal Bill and was superseded by the Inter-Governmental Agreement with the UK Government over the powers which will accrue to the National Assembly as a consequence of Brexit. 

It isn’t so long ago that the First Minister described the EU Withdrawal Bill as the most fundamental attack on devolved government since 1999. And he was right. So we should not understate the importance of the repeal of this legislation. Nor should we limit our understanding of the agreement to the simplicity of the use of powers following Brexit. This agreement is more than about the suite of powers under immediate consideration. It is about the concept of where power lies in the UK. And that is a much bigger issue. And in this new settlement not a single power is lost but a process of joint decision-making created.

Taken together it is little short of a triumph. 

The debate was led by Mark Drakeford, with interventions from all sides and including those Members speaking on behalf of the Assembly committees who had examined the legislation. It is fair to say that on all sides of the chamber there were some expressions of the reservations and concerns over the course of action being proposed. But more fundamentally there was a wide recognition of the work and achievements of the Welsh Government in negotiating this agreement. 

In fact the agreement, which if I am being completely fair has involved some soul-searching for many of us, represents compromise on all sides. But it is also a revolutionary document. In a very British sort of way. 

Looking at Westminster from a distance the Palace can sometimes appear to be more and more of an anachronism is today’s world. An island almost set apart from the country it seeks to govern. And this is a place with its own rules and its culture. Despite the exertions of the Upper House there have been times as the debates and legislation over Brexit have progressed on their miserable way that the impressions given of it being the Last Night of the Proms every night of week in the Palace by the Thames. 

Which makes the agreement over powers all the more remarkable. 

And let’s remember this. The Brexit legislation was designed to end any encroachment on the powers of the Imperial Parliament. It was designed to put the “Great” back into Britain. Taking back control. The leader columns of the Daily Express given legal form. Whilst the agreement may involve some limitation on our freedoms to act. And for many of us, this is difficult to swallow. Those limitations are shared limitations. And this is where the minor revolution has taken place.

The agreement places limits upon the ability of the UK Government to govern England. 

Now let that sink in. 

The sovereign Parliament agreeing not to use powers to govern England as a part of an agreement on how we govern the UK.

This is ground-breaking stuff.

Those people who have decided to huff and puff would do well to take a longer view of these matters. The evolution of devolved democracy has been difficult to entrench in a constitution that keeps changing. For people who constantly lecture us on the power and majesty of the Mother of Parliaments, it is telling that that the UK Parliament has failed in over twenty years to deliver a stable form of government for the whole UK with checks and balances and a modern structure of scrutiny and accountability. These are failings of the UK Parliament and not failings of the devolved administrations. UK Ministers still retain far too many residual powers over areas of devolved competence and there remains a seriously deficient settlement for us in Wales and no UK-wide governmental structure that isn’t owned or controlled by the UK Government. So this agreement allows us to begin developing these structures which, after a great deal of unnecessary delay and prevarication, will, I hope, be seen in the future as a fundamental to our constitutional arrangements. It’s how Britain changes.

And I suspect that in private Adam Price recognises this as well. His demand that we take to the trenches to defend the sovereign right of the Welsh Parliament made better theatre than politics or legal common sense. I, and many others on the Labour benches, prefer the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people rather than that of the Crown in Parliament – whether that parliament is by the Thames or the Taff. But we also live in the real world. 

I believe that in time and with goodwill this agreement may well be seen to have set the beginnings of a new course for the UK. A United Kingdom of equal parliaments governing and sharing powers for the good of all the peoples of these islands. A new structure of ministerial councils maintaining the integrity of our shared institutions with shared and joint decisions making the UK a shared space. And the sooner the better.  

Which brings us back to Plaid. Their rage and anger over the agreement with the UK Government on Brexit demonstrates that they do not understand devolution, Wales or the UK. Which is a quite an achievement.

The SNP, with whom I and other Welsh ministers have sat and worked over the last decade or so, have an understanding of the political geography of the UK which is second only to Sinn Fein. And they have accordingly been far more successful than Plaid.

The SNP has clearly taken an informed decision that this agreement – probably for some of the reasons I have already described – is not in their interests. So be it. I make no criticism of the Scottish Government for reaching those conclusions. But their objective of independence and the break-up of the United Kingdom is different to ours. We want to make the UK work. 

The Scottish Labour Party has reached a similar position which, after the horrific consequences of being perceived to support the Conservatives in the independence referendum campaign, should be of little surprise to anyone either.

And this is the point that Plaid simply does not understand. It is entirely possible for Welsh Labour to reach a coherent political position which we believe is in the best interests of Wales and the UK and which is different to the policy positions of Labour elsewhere in these islands. That’s the power of devolution and reflects the political powers we have to take decisions which are different in different parts of the UK. And the crashing irony of Leanne Wood taking time over the summer to write to Jeremy Corbyn asking him to intervene in our affairs to protect Welsh decision-making remains there for everyone to enjoy. 

But that’s all politics. At its heart this is an agreement which may usher in a new way of working for all UK administrations and which entrenches the powers of all our parliaments, establishing a new principle of equality in the governance of the UK. And that means a very different UK to the one we’ve been used to seeing over the last twenty years. It is now our responsibility to describe how we want that new UK to look and the new structures of governance that will give life to this ambition. A fake and sterile argument over powers is a sideshow. The real prize is a fundamental reworking of constitutional theory and practice and the reality of a multinational and shared United Kingdom.

In short it is an agreement which in the future may well be seen as a very British revolution. 

Active citizenship – reinventing Welsh democracy

Last week I was invited to give the Public Affairs Cymru annual lecture. I am grateful to them for the invitation. During this lecture I returned to the theme of democracy and building a democratic society in Wales that I have been exploring over this year. This is an edited version of the lecture.

My theme this evening is democracy.

Democracy within Welsh Labour.

Democracy within the institutions of government and the National Assembly.

And democracy within the wider Welsh civic society.

And underpinning all of this a democratic culture that enhances and strengthens and deepens and emboldens our democratic institutions.

When I speak of democracy it is not the fake democracy of Trump or Farage where democratic legitimacy is built upon hatred of others. And we saw a glimpse of that particular democracy on Tuesday at FMQs. It was nasty, horrible and ugly. And it has no place in the sort of democracy that I want to see in our future.

But neither do I mean a democracy where people are shouted down at Constituency Labour Parties because their views don’t sit happily and easily with the current fashion. A democracy where antisemitism and bullying all too often form a culture where people feel unable to speak and say what they think. A democracy where there sometimes appears to be a virility test of various causes where a polit-bureau will assess your place on the virtuous left. There was a time when we used to elect national executives to stand up to the political leadership and to hold that parliamentary leadership to account. Now we are told that we must elect a NEC that is in thrall to that leadership. And that’s not democracy either.

Not a democracy where people feel inhibited and unable to speak, openly, honestly and truthfully. So many times over my decade in public office I have witnessed people who feel afraid to speak publicly whether it is the farmer who agrees with a minister over subsidies or councillor who agrees that reform is overdue. All too often I have seen people pull punches and bite lips whilst giving evidence to committees because criticism of Welsh Government or ministers is too difficult for organisations whose funding depends upon the largesse of that same government and those ministers.

But also not a democracy where a party of government is unable to easily hold an election with a woman on the ballot paper. My decision not to pursue my own campaign for the leadership of Welsh Labour was a difficult one. I would have preferred to spend the next few weeks travelling the country arguing the case for radical change and for the sort of party and political movement that I want to see.

But I know it was the right thing to do. And it reflects very poorly on the whole of the National Assembly Labour Party that people are not prepared to allow a woman on the ballot paper. And make no mistake. This is not an accident nor an oversight. It is not inadvertent and nor is it unintentional. It is the direct consequence of a planned campaign to limit the choice available to members of the party. And the consequence of this is that Welsh Labour will no longer be a credible voice for equality or for fairness if it becomes the only Welsh political party this year to actively prevent a woman reaching the ballot.

So that’s not the democracy that I’m interested in either.

This evening I want to reassert a radical and ambitious agenda. My leadership campaign would have been based upon a strongly-held belief that change and radical reform is how we will address some of the critical issues facing Wales today. From entrenched poverty to economic underperformance, the delivery of public services and participation in our democratic and public spaces. We need and must do better.

A challenge to the established way of doing things. Like many others I came into politics because I hated the poverty that I saw around me. But I also hated the poverty of ambition and aspiration from too many politicians. And still I see politicians today who believe that politics is about finding out what people want and giving it to them. The power of politics reduced to a transactional relationship.

As I have pursued a reforming agenda much of the criticism that has been levelled at me in proposing change is that I’m being either too radical or too ambitious. In agriculture, the environment, Welsh language and now local government and public services. Whilst I’m very happy to be found guilty on both charges the fact that being seen as either radical or ambitious are seen as a valid grounds for criticism speaks of a political system and culture that has probably lost its way.

Because change there must be. And change more profound than many of us realise. But that change will not happen unless we make it happen. Except that it may be forced upon us by events. And were that to be the case then would be a terrible reflection of the ability of devolved government respond to the epoch-defining challenges we face as a country and as a society. I say this because government must be about more than the administration of and supervision of the work of civil servants.

And democracy is fundamental to this change. Almost without realising it we are becoming a different country. By the time of the next election in 2021 the majority of the Welsh electorate will barely remember what I will now call direct rule. Wales without an assembly or a parliament. Without realising it we will have become a nation which is used to having a democracy and a government. And that is a real staging post in our national story. No other generation in our long history has witnessed the creation of a Welsh democracy and the creation of a Welsh state. And it is a privilege for those of us who have appeared – even somewhat uncertainly – on the stage and who have played a part in creating this young democracy.

But increasing longevity does not mean that any of our institutions are either secure or popular or even loved by the people we seek to serve. I believe that our politics are broken and that the threats to democratic self-government in Wales are real and present. Austerity and the politics that are a consequence of economic failure have created social and political reaction down the years. Gareth Bennett’s vile and ugly views have a platform not because of his successes but because of our failures. And it is to address those failures and to repair our democracy that lie at the heart of my case for radical change.

But let me also start by asserting clearly that whatever the faults of our current form of government it is a million miles better than what went before.

I am in the soon-to-be minority of people who are old enough to remember the bad old days of direct rule. The days when as President of NUS Wales I’d ask to speak to the Welsh Education Minister. In reality an Under-Secretary of State in the Welsh Office. He is in Cardiff most Mondays I am told. But you’d be better off meeting him in London. That’s where he spends most of his time. Would after lunch suit?

Let no-one tell you that those days were better days.

So let’s take stock.

What’s working?

Technically most things are actually working but is that how it feels? I suspect that for most people decisions still appear to be taken many miles away by people they do not recognise or know. We sometimes believe that this is only the case in the north. But it is also true in Tredegar and I suspect in Butetown as well. It is possible to feel a million miles away whilst living around the corner.

And this is the broken politics that I have spoken about over the summer in my short leadership campaign. A politics where people see no visible evidence that decision-makers are able to make a material difference to their lives.

Welsh Labour

It is time for Welsh Labour to embrace a reforming agenda. To paraphrase Winston Churchill…. You can always count on Welsh Labour to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.

I want my party to return to its Bevanite roots. Where its determination to hold onto to power is at least matched by its determination to use that same power to transform people’s lives. When Tony Blair talked of the many and not the few he was talking about the people of this country and not simply decision-making in a CLP or party conference.

But Bevan was an idiosyncratic figure who hated being pigeon-holed. He was the radical miner’s agent who breakfasted in the Café Royale. The militant trades unionist who run Tredegar during the strike in 1926 who was also a regular weekend guest of Lord Beaverbrooke. The man who gave his name to the Bevanites of the left in the fifties and beyond was the same man who broke Michael foot’s heart in Brighton in October 1957.

Not for Bevan the rigours and confines of factionalism. The thought police would have been kept busy by Bevan’s creative and inquiring mind. His rhetoric and inventive would have been unleashed on many of today’s keyboard warriors. With a particular ridicule and contempt saved for those who seek deselection as a penalty for independence of thought and action.

So this is my appeal to my party. Do what is right for Wales and not ape what is done in England. Focus on democracy in a country of three million and not simply copy the democracy review completed for the UK Party. And look hard and creatively to develop a democracy that is rooted in the Welsh experience and not look at every proposal through the spectacles of factionalism and whether a particular leader supports it or not.

I also appeal to Welsh Labour to accept the case for STV and to embrace a reforming agenda for our public services and how we structure the governance of our country – we cannot with credibility demand reform from others while resisting it ourselves.

To become a political party where members, MPs and council leaders share policy making with Welsh ministers and where Welsh ministers are held to account because it’s the right thing to do and not because we want to deselect them before the next election. Looking inwards offers only the prospect of a deserved defeat.

And this is real political democracy. Delivering a manifesto in government is more important than endless internal meetings discussing the rulebook. And delivering that manifesto means delivering the whole of that manifesto and not the bits that are popular with different parts of the party.

Welsh Government and the National Assembly

Over the last twenty years all too often our national institutions have managed the feat of being both overbearing and timid. And often at the same time. Which is quite an achievement in itself.

I want to not simply arrest the process of centralisation but to reverse it. I have campaigned all of my adult life for devolution and the end of the UK unitary state. For me, strong home rule parliaments in Wales and Scotland form the bedrock of the architecture of our new United Kingdom. But I haven’t campaigned to create a strong parliamentary democracy in Wales only to create a new unitary state based in Cardiff Bay.

I believe that it is time for a new democratic settlement which will enable and allow citizens the opportunity to take more decisions locally. Although I don’t agree with the whole of his doctrines in The Road to Serfdom I do agree with FA Hayek when he said “nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government”.

The relationship between local government and the Welsh Government remains an immature relationship.

And it’s nothing new.

The last century has seen the steady erosion of local power.  Successive reorganisations have sought to find a balance between local accountability and the scale required to deliver high quality services. Everyone will be delighted that I do not intend to describe again all the attempts to reform both the structures and the culture of local government since 1999. It is sufficient to note that despite the urgings of ministers, the publication of numerous white or green papers and manifesto commitments as well as the clear demands of a population which doesn’t understand why a country of three million people requires quite so much government there has been no structural and little cultural change.

So devolution must now mean devolution within Wales and real devolution to communities across and throughout Wales.

And this is a challenge to the political class and to politicians in each one of the political parties.

Empowering citizens and creating a new democracy is uncomfortable and a threat to established power structures. Over the last year I have had private conversations with politicians in each one of the parties, including council leaders, where they have told me that they support reform. They have also told me very clearly that although they know it is the right thing to do they will not support reform because it is too difficult. What does that say to people who are struggling with the consequences of this failure?

But we need to go further than this.

We have created a complexity in governance. And this complexity is not a benign entanglement of committees. It is something which disempowers both public servants and citizens. I do not support the creation of an additional and unnecessary web of boards and committees because these models of governance not only take the business of government further away from the citizen but also fundamentally undermine the principle of democratic accountability.  And they sap our collective energy, use up precious resources and such complexity fundamentally mitigates against reform and change.

At a time when our finances are under enormous pressure it appears to me to be curious how we believe that greater complexity will in any way address the challenges ahead. And I believe that it is going to get worse. Whatever Brexit scenario we may choose to believe no scenario foresees additional tax revenue and additional public expenditure over the coming years. And the reduction of complexity in government is essential to a maturing and active and empowered democracy.

Civic Society

It is time for civic society to challenge the Welsh Government. I have lost count of the number of witnesses who have appeared in front of committee to tell us that everything is going swimmingly. Just a little tweak needed here and there. Such timidity tends to be born of government funding rather than a belief in the government itself.

And a maturity to know the difference. Harder talk, tougher debate. A more honest politics. A new culture in civic society where there is a mature relationship with Welsh Government. And the Welsh Government – members and officials – must also learn to live with this culture as well.

So what is a democratic culture?

Whilst we are one of Europe’s oldest nations with a culture, language and traditions that stretch back into history, we are also one of Europe’s youngest political nations. And this is something which we all sometimes fail to recognise. All too often we compare ourselves unfavourably with parliamentary democracy as practiced in the Palace by the Thames where they call themselves the mother of parliaments.

Clearly they’ve never heard of Iceland. But there we go. It establishes an unhelpful context for us. The hard reality is that here we have been inventing a new democracy in a country where there had previously been little independent thought or thinking.

When I consider the question of democracy and a democratic culture I feel more comfortable with Tom Paine than Edmund Burke. I am instinctively drawn to the democracy of the American or French revolutionary than the traditionalism of the British (or in Burke’s case – Irish) Conservative.

The founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629 by a group of Puritans led by John Winthrop came with the understanding that the enterprise was to be “based in the new world rather than in London.” One of the first actions of the new settlers arriving in Jamestown was to hold an election. The principle of local self-government was more important to many of those first settlers than the question of the independence of the colony as a whole. A new political culture with active citizenship at its heart and as a founding principle.

And in Wales we share some of these radical traditions. We started our journey to becoming a literate nation long before compulsory education, thanks in part to Griffith Jones and his Circulating Schools which by the time of his death in 1761 had taught around 200,000 people to read. And this is important. It was not the state providing an education but a radical self-built movement which enabled many working people to read for themselves and at the same time rooting the importance of education in the culture of the country. Again active citizenship changing the lives of people, communities and the nature of the country.

In July we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Act of Parliament that established the National Health Service. But of course the NHS was not simply the brainchild of a think tank it was born in 1890 when the Tredegar Medical Aid and Sick Relief Fund was created with each worker in the town contributing halfpenny a week. Active citizenship. And democracy was at its heart – they even elected the doctors!

And so I believe that active citizenship is not only a central part of our political traditions but it is also a part of who we are as a people and as a nation.

For me active citizenship is fundamental to our democratic socialism and any new democratic culture. And you cannot control a culture where equality and democracy are at its heart. Something that politicians need to learn and understand.

How do we achieve this?

In my view we place real power in the hands of citizens and enable citizens to exercise that power. We devolve and distribute power more equally.

But active citizenship demands accountability more than once every four or five years. The politicians of the future will need to be far more responsive to their electorates than the politicians of today. In my time in elected office I have seen the number of letters we receive fall to a trickle. In their place email and social media now dominate our communications. And notwithstanding the issues of bullying, trolling and abuse I still feel that this channel of engagement is generally a good thing. As a society and as a political system we are still coming to terms with the power of these ways of managing our communications. I am an optimist and I believe that our society will in time learn to use social media in a more thoughtful way.

So the active citizen of tomorrow will be able and willing to communicate instantly – and expect instantaneous response – and able to mobilise at a pace and scale we haven’t seen before.  For us politicians, this is a great challenge.  For citizens it is a great opportunity.

By providing new powers to be held locally, new opportunities to use those powers and by increasing and deepening local democratic debate, I believe that we will, over time, change the culture of government. And by doing so, change the relationship between government and the communities it serves as well as the relationship between local government and Welsh Government.

It was that great historian Gwyn Alf Williams who said that Wales would be made and remade by those people living in the two western peninsular of Britain. For two thousand years, he said, we have improbably fashioned a nation – our nation – the Welsh nation and it only exists because we made it exist.

So today it falls to us. To our generation to remake Wales again. Those of us who remember enjoying Gwyn Alf arguing through The Dragon has Two Tongues with Wynford Vaughan Thomas will remember their description of Wales through the ages – under the heel; gentry country; swallowing the leek; from riot to respectability; and of course the final episode inevitably entitled “the death of Wales?” with Gwyn’s memorable description of us as a people walking naked under a acid rain.

It is my hope that the next chapter in our history will be Democratic Wales with our democratic institutions underpinned by a democratic society but it will only happen if we make it happen. And making it happen is our duty to future generations.