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  • Lawrence Bailey

Are we devolution winners or losers?

You might have noticed among all the virus-related news that the National Assembly for Wales has now formally become the Senedd Cymru or Welsh Parliament.

Although this attracted its predictable share of cheers and jeers, the announcement sparked a personal flashback to an evening in 1998 and a subdued gathering in the Dylan Thomas Centre.

A year earlier, a new Labour government made good on a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on devolution. Soon after, Welsh Secretary Ron Davies declared that Wales was waking up to “very good morning”

That assertion was a bit subjective, of course. The result was extremely tight with just 50.3% voting in favour of a new elected body.

It wasn’t just political opponents who branded it an unwelcome and unwarranted extra layer of administration either. Senior local government figures who wore the same colour rosettes as Mr Blair were deeply dismayed at the advent of “a county council on stilts”.

However, for all these shortcomings, a factor that soon concentrated minds more attuned to the main chance was that this was a fledgling institution in search of a new home.

It had been assumed from the outset the new Assembly would be located in the capital. So it’s understandable how the establishment had a nasty turn when the cost-saving notion of squeezing members into any convenient Welsh council chamber was unexpectedly rolled out.

The choice was quickly whittled down to Cardiff or Swansea – primarily because both had such impressive venues to offer, free of charge. It should be noted though that this altruism stemmed from the fact that there was a surplus of high-maintenance civic buildings in Wales, thanks to a slimdown exercise from a few years earlier.

Despite a very brief moment when it almost seemed that devolution could actually break the mould, matters were arranged to ensure there would be no repetition of the angst once felt among the crachach when the M4 threatened to become a Cardiff bypass.

Crickhowell House – named after a former Welsh Secretary, a favourite of Margaret Thatcher – was designated the preferred (and temporary) location and Cardiff Bay became part of political reality.

Strangely, you’d be hard pressed to find any online account of this. It’s almost as if the ‘Say Yes to Swansea’ movement happened in the digital Dark Ages. Or maybe it’s eloquent proof that history is indeed written by the winners.

You’ll have to trust my version of events for now, along with my opinion that the city not only gave a sterling account of itself but learned valuable lessons too.

The people gathered that night 22 years ago were from politics, the press, commerce, higher and further education and entertainment. They weren’t just there in recognition for the parts they had played in a ‘failed’ campaign, but for the roles they’d take in shaping the future.

They’d go on to help combine expertise between public and private sectors and forge new alliances that placed collective gain before self-interest. They exploited ‘loser’ status to attract funding for venues like the National Waterfront Museum Swansea and the Wales National Pool. They learned to put together grant packages that saw investment in SA1, Swansea Vale and the Liberty Stadium.

I’d argue that it was those same innovative qualities, widened to a regional perspective, that underpin today’s City Deal initiative – but I’m probably biased.

So would we have had a different kind of Senedd if it had been located here? I honestly don’t know. I’m not even sure that it matters anymore.

We probably gained more than we lost, but if devolution is just about winners and losers then maybe we’re just doing it wrong.



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