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Poor Man’s Parliament: Ten Years of the Welsh Assembly

Martin Shipton
ISBN-13: 
9781854115164
Publication Date: 
Friday, February 4, 2011
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A decade after devolution 6 out of 10 Welsh voters didn’t know which parties formed the Welsh Assembly Government. Rhodri Morgan, the long-serving First Minister, was recognised by less than 50%, other party leaders had less than 10% recognition. In addition to this voter disengagement, the system of law-making seemed not to be fully understood even by constitutional lawyers.

Poor Man’s Parliament explains why the hopes of 1999 failed to materialise and why the National Assembly has yet to capture the nation’s imagination. Its themes emerge through a chronological narrative, in which Martin Shipton offers a searching commentary on key events. They include: UK Labour’s installation of the uncharismatic Alun Michael as leader of an Assembly which needed to capture the public's imagination; obstinacy by the Westminster Treasury over crucial match funding for European money, and Michael’s subsequent downfall; Labour’s obsession with party unity at the expense of clear national leadership; the shutting down of public debate through reliance on Assembly patronage of so many organisations; the quality of Assembly Members; shameless defiance of Freedom of Information Act to stifle criticism.

Poor Man’s Parliament covers the Assembly from its beginnings in 1999 to Rhodri Morgan’s retirement as First Minister in November 2009, exploring the record of government by Labour and Plaid Cymru, and an analysis of recent electoral trends. It is written from a pro-devolution viewpoint, though one dismayed by events.
 

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Review from waleshome.org

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Martin Shipton's clever book on the first decade of devolution in Wales...has at its heart a compelling central premise: the original devolution settlement was so flawed and inconsistent that it has hampered the effectiveness of the institution. This isn't a subtext; it's up there in black and white at the very outset when he writes:

"What could be more humiliating for a legislature than to be forced into a position of begging a superior to legislate on its behalf?"

This book is an illustration of the consequences of this limitation but at the same time does not show a picture of the National Assembly or Welsh Assembly government without its failings. He is upbeat in reporting Carwyn Jones on foot-and-mouth as he is scathing of Jane Hutt and the NHS reorganisation of a decade ago. His personal preferences for certain politicians are also sometimes clear; through he generally avoids adjectives in their descriptions. In broad terms Martin's world is divided between would-be flawed angles such as Ron Davies, Rhodri Morgan or Mike German, and a cohort of those perceived by the author either to be damnable control freaks determined to thwart the potential of devolution, or simply inept.

Alun Michael MP certainly heads this control freak category, with Shipton offering no redeeming points on his time as First Secretary, through others like Rod Richards and Assembly backbenchers whom he regards as ineffective also creep in. Another who is quietly vilified as the embodiment of anti-devolution is former Labour MP Don Touhig whose role and reasoning in the Michael-Morgan leadership battle are, following one of Touhig's characteristically biased interventions, dismissed by Shipton with the line"

"As I pointed out at the time, Josef Starlin could not have argued the point better himself."

In this observation there is a critical truth, for Martin Shipton did indeed point many things out "at the time" and that is what makes this book so readable and persuasive. He is not a biographer of a dead person or institution, but the chronicler of an Assembly often let down by its members, its civil service and also, to great degree, by its range of powers.

He argues convincingly that has the Assembly received a fuller range of legislative powers at the start then perhaps it wouldn't have seemed so obsessed with constitutional change at points of its life. This pint is hammered home in an appendix in which he offers a transcript of a speech he made in a conference I helped organise back in 2001, when Martin outclasses all the politicians present in his savage critique of the Legislative Competence Order system which, he argued, "institutionalises slow motion politics as the only way of doing things." In doing so he offers a compelling narrative for us Yes campaigners at the moment. And narrative is clear in this book. Martin writes with authority because he is an authority. H was always there, usually in the wings and sometimes in the stage. He was there when devolution came and he is still there today. He is as integral to the story of devolution as any of the flawed but well meaning politicians he depicts. That is what gives this book its compelling charm. His writing is as spot in hardback as it is tabloid form, and his messages are as blunt and persuasive as necessary.

Daran Hill, welshhome.org

21/02/2011 - 14:38