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Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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8.3 Conclusion

  • While Wales was thoroughly incorporated into England in the sixteenth century, from the early twentieth century onwards new administrative bodies were established to make and implement Wales-specific policies.
  • Demands for a fairer system of political representation for Wales led to an unsuccessful referendum on devolution in 1979, but dissatisfaction with the legitimacy of administrative devolution grew throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.
  • A successful referendum on devolution in 1997 led to the creation of a National Assembly for Wales, amid promises of the emergence of a new inclusive politics in Wales.
  • Devolution has been a process rather than an event. Thus, since 1999 there have been important changes in the way in which the National Assembly and the Welsh Government work and their powers; these debates are ongoing.
  • Devolution has had some positive democratic effects in Wales. New structures have been created for bringing previously marginalised groups into the political process. The Government of Wales Act 2006 contributed to further developing such opportunities for civil society involvement in decision making.
  • Civil society groups have also developed new lobbying strategies in order to influence policy making by the Welsh Government.
  • However, devolution has also had some potentially negative democratic implications. Some civil society groups are better resourced, while others have enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Welsh Government.
  • These patterns of interaction risk reinforcing exclusion and marginalisation within civil society, jeopardise the inclusiveness of politics in post-devolution Wales, and risk undermining the scrutiny function of civil society vis-à-vis the Welsh Government.
  • Although devolution has led to policy divergence between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom, these policies have been perceived to have led to very limited improvements in areas such as health, education and standards of living.
  • Devolution as a system of governance, in contrast, enjoys increasing levels of support among Welsh voters.

Any legitimate system of political representation should try to ensure that the voices of all citizens – regardless of their age, skin colour, gender, sexual preferences or language – are heard equally, and are listened to by elected representatives that take political decisions on our behalf. A legitimate system of political representation should also be one that leads to good decisions with desirable effects on a political community.

But as you have seen in this course, achieving good political representation can be extremely difficult. In Wales, concerns about the exclusion of certain voices from the political process led to demands for devolution in the 1960s and 1970s, and again by the mid-1990s. Such demands were also based on the perception that the needs and interests of the Welsh people were largely being overlooked by successive London-based governments. In contrast, New Labour’s devolution plans were justified on the grounds that they would replace political exclusion with a new inclusive form of politics, where previously marginalised individuals and groups would be given new opportunities to participate in, and inform, the political process in Wales. The creation of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999 provided the framework for creating such an inclusive politics, and for establishing a system of good governance.

We have examined the extent to which devolution has been successful in meeting this goal. On the one hand, positive action by Welsh political parties means that Wales is a world leader in terms of the representation of women. The National Assembly has also taken its commitment to ‘equality of opportunity’ seriously and has created new structures to make it easier for civil society organisations to feed into debates on policy and legislation. Civil society organisations have responded to these new opportunities by developing new strategies for influencing the Welsh Government and Assembly Members.

On the other hand, less has been done to ensure that other minority groups are represented within the National Assembly, and a partially PR electoral system has not resulted in a broader spectrum of political groups being elected. In this respect, devolution has fallen far short of creating a system of descriptive representation. The involvement of civil society in post-devolution policy making has also been unequal; less well-resourced groups have found it harder to be effective policy lobbyists, while Welsh policy makers have also been more ready to listen to some groups more than others. The policy-making process in Wales also remains highly complex.

We have also examined the legitimacy of the devolution settlement from the perspective of output legitimacy. Here again we see a mixed-picture emerging. In spite of the fact that policy making in Wales has differed in significant ways from other parts of the UK as a result of decisions taken by the National Assembly, there is a widespread perception that these policies have not made a major impact on the economy and society in Wales. At the same time as Welsh voters remain unimpressed with what the National Assembly and the Welsh Government does, they nevertheless support devolution as a better system of governance for Wales.

Some might conclude from these observations that devolution has not resulted in a better system of political representation in Wales. They could argue, in support of this position, that the National Assembly has fallen short of creating a truly inclusive politics and of improving the economic and social well-being of Welsh voters. My own conclusions would be less negative. Like devolution, the task of ensuring a better and more legitimate system of political representation broadening is a process not an event. Important steps have already been taken to broaden and deepen participation in the democratic process in Wales, while devolution has also come to be widely accepted as the appropriate political expression of how people in Wales wish to be governed. There is still work to be done to further enhance the inclusiveness and impact of the Welsh Government’s ‘made in Wales’ policies. But devolution has set Wales on the right path towards achieving a more legitimate system of political representation.