Get on with the business – democracy demands it
This week the National Assembly for Wales marks its 20th anniversary.
Apart from reminding us how quickly the years can roll by it will be a time for personal and political reflection. Like others I will therefore share a few thoughts to mark the occasion.
Firstly thinking back to just over twenty years ago I recall the Assembly referendum campaign as a period of political optimism. I shared that optimism as the, then, mother of two young boys who themselves are now young adults. I suppose their lives are amongst the first generation to be much shaped by the politics of devolution. Perhaps that generation should be asked to capture whether they noticed, and what they feel it meant?
Leaving the Tory shadows
I was a trade union official in the Welsh public services and we were strong supporters of the Assembly as we believed it would bring a far greater level of democratic control over these vital services. That question of democratic control, having just left the shadow of recent UK Tory control – combined with Labour’s ambitious investment plans – made for an exciting time. In 1999 we were very much enjoying the thrill of moving beyond the long years of Tory rule and the opportunity to implement Labour’s plans.
It was of course still the early period of the Blair premiership and his influence was substantial. In the very tight referendum result that culminated in the creation of this Assembly I feel people overlook the importance of Blair’s campaign visits, and the vital votes they delivered in the more devo-sceptical parts of Wales. All political legacies are debated but for those supporting devolution Blair’s influence was a positive, whatever we subsequently read about his personal caution on the issue.
Evolution of democracy
The other big reflection is that we were probably over optimistic. To convince the voters of the need for a democratic Assembly perhaps too much was claimed for the type of institution being created at that time. That is why the steady evolution of the Assembly in the period since 1999 has been important. Some are impatient for more change, but I believe democracies and parliaments evolve. I often recall to myself that Westminster has been on a journey for 600 years, so at just 20 years old the National Assembly for Wales is not doing badly.
I was of course honoured with becoming an Assembly Member in 2016. I am always aware that it is a great honour to serve my constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. Since becoming an AM I am more acutely aware that the National Assembly – our Welsh Parliament – is under significant institutional pressure. The quality of our democracy matters, and I believe we are currently at a very fine margin between the effectiveness of our parliamentary functions and our capacity to deliver. Perhaps that is a part of the story for the next twenty years.
Making the case for democracy
Yet equally important is the need to continue making the case for democracy itself. Improving democracy was a central driver in the campaign for our Assembly. But in 2019 these are uncertain times and many fundamental challenges exist to that which may currently seem familiar. Populism is driving extreme reactions so I believe nothing can be taken for granted.
Get on with the business
How to mark the 20th anniversary? Well words like this will be written, there will be speeches and events, but for me it should be business as normal. There is important business on the agenda this week.
I know my constituents continue to need support and they face difficulties. So casework in housing, health, social care, tackling debt and mental health and issues with our local councils continue. I will continue to campaign for some of the big changes that we need, not least removing the dead hand of Tory austerity that is suffocating the social heart of our communities and denuding the value and quality of our shared spaces. The shadow of Tory failure hangs over our communities once again.
So happy 20th anniversary – but let’s get on with the business so that, as the current generation of Assembly Members, we defend our evolving democratic system.