A toast to 20 years of devolution?

Get the champagne out tonight - it is exactly 20 years since Wales voted for devolution by a slender margin of 6,721 votes.

Somehow or other I think the bubbly will be staying in the fridge and it will be bed early for most Welsh households.

To be fair to the assembly, that is probably more a reflection of the disillusioned era in which we live than anything to do with Cardiff Bay.

There is not much goodwill out there for the political establishment at the moment, so while it is true to say the assembly is not loved, you could say the same about parliament and local government.

Throw into the mix that fact that the assembly is the new kid on the block, and that it came into being so narrowly, and it becomes particularly challenging.

Taxing times

That said, the fact that most people still cannot be bothered to turn out to vote in assembly elections is a particularly tough stat for anyone in the business of promoting Welsh devolution.

For the record, turnout last year was 45%. The corresponding figures for the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland assembly are well above the symbolic 50% mark.

But the knight in shining armour in terms of public engagement could be about to arrive: the devolution of some of the taxes we pay.

If policies start to hurt or benefit voters financially then my prediction (a dangerous game I know these days) is that they will start to take far more interest in events in the Senedd that they have been blissfully unaware of until now.

For many of course, the existence of directly-elected Welsh AMs, for all their imperfections, is the point of it all. No longer tagged on to England, Wales has a degree of control that never existed before.

Feast or famine

Devolution has been a tale of two halves: rising annual cash settlements from Westminster followed by flat or reduced budgets.

The two eras have neatly coincided with the terms of Rhodri Morgan and his successor Carwyn Jones, who is marching towards beating Mr Morgan's 10 year record.

It is easy to forget but the first First Minister presided over a time of plenty which set the scene for crowd-pleasing giveaways like free prescriptions, school breakfasts and bus passes for pensioners.

The latter half has been marked by a far more managerial style of politics, dominated by the hard yards of public sector reform without extra money, and bitter rows with a Conservative government at Westminster over things like NHS budgets.

In all that time, Labour has kept its stranglehold on power. When I interviewed Tony Blair last week he told me that if people did not like devolved Labour governments they could always vote them out. Not so in Wales.

In that sense, rather than the story of devolution, this is the story of successive Labour administrations, but it is impossible to split the two. Whether that changes over the next 20 years is a fascinating question.

Labour has effectively blunted various threats, including from Plaid Cymru with its own version of soft nationalism, and from the Conservatives by tapping into the tribal opposition to the Tories that still exists in many communities.

Good health?

Labour's dominance also shows up the inability of the opposition parties to find a way of hurting the governing party in a sustained way. If there is a formula out there, successive Plaid and Tory opposition leaders have failed to find it.

Look at the major events in devolution over the past 20 years and you see some big controversial decisions like the bonfire of the quangos and the acquisition of Cardiff airport which, for good or ill, have left their mark.

But the failure of the Welsh Government to reduce the number of councils has also been a sign of severe limitation in reforming the public sector.

Is Wales better with or without devolution? Take the NHS. If you are waiting for a hip replacement operation (and waits are on average three times longer in Wales than in England) then you are likely to say without, but if you or a relative have been moved out of a hospital into social care relatively quickly then you are likely to say "better with", as bed-blocking rates in Wales have been consistently lower than in the English system.

In education, GCSE and A level results have been relatively steady over the years but in the latest accepted way of comparing systems, PISA, Wales has struggled compared to other parts of the UK. Data like this has meant successive Welsh Governments have tended to be on the defensive, rather than the attack, when it comes to comparisons with public services in England.

Of course we will never know the answer to the question of whether devolution has made life better or worse because we do not know how things would have panned out if just under 7,000 votes had gone in a different direction.

Maybe it is at this point we should all get the champagne out, or something stronger, get round the table and argue the toss. It could be a long night after all.

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