QUITE a lot, actually, as Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns found out last week. The announcement that the Second Severn Crossing would henceforth be known as the Prince of Wales Bridge in honour of HRH Prince Charles was met with a somewhat equivocal response from the population of Wales.
The name change, agreed by the Queen and Theresa May, was timed to mark Prince Charles’s 70th birthday, and the 60th anniversary of his investiture as Prince of Wales.
At the time of going to print, around 30,000 people had signed a petition calling for the name change to be scrapped. Plaid Cymru, as might perhaps be expected, were among the more vociferous objectors, with leader Leanne Wood asking whether or not this was a late April Fool prank.
Mr Cairns invoked the Conservative Party’s secret weapon – the ‘silent majority’ – which he suggested gave the name change their full, if silent, backing.
Speaking to the BBC, he implied that a small group of republicans were behind the opposition: “We knew that public opinion would be broad,” he remarked. “Of course there will be some republicans who dislike it, but I think that they should at least have respect for the Prince of Wales because of the work he does in the community.
“I know some republicans who strongly support the charities that he stands for – the Prince’s Trust, Prime Cymru , Business in the Community – and the fantastic work that they do. And I would hope that they would at least look at the work of those charities and recognise that this is a fitting title – for that work if nothing else.”
While the work carried out by groups such as the Prince’s Trust is indeed laudable, it would surely have made more sense to call it The Prince’s Trust Bridge, or indeed the Prime Cymru Crossing, if the name change was meant to celebrate Prince Charles’ charitable works.
The Welsh Labour Government was conspicuously silent on the matter, and it emerged shortly afterwards that Mr Cairns had informed them of the plans some time previously. They raised no objections. This led Plaid Cymru AM Adam Price to accuse the Welsh Government of taking its eye off the ball.
“It’s rare in Wales for tens of thousands of people to sign a petition on an issue like this, with such an emotional and defiant reaction,” he added.
“Of course it’s not just about the name of the bridge, but the symbolism, and the way the decision was made.
“Attention will rightly turn to the Labour Welsh Government and the first minister in the coming weeks, as they failed to raise objections or to recommend that the public’s views were sought.
“We potentially have a position where Labour politicians, as well as Plaid Cymru, will be disappointed in their own first minister, and will be left scratching their heads about why some kind of wider consultation wasn’t proposed.
“Serious questions need to be asked of why the Labour Government took its eye off the ball and, given the strong public reaction, we should now at the very least expect the Welsh Government to make formal representations to the UK government in favour of public consultation.”
This was the cue for UKIP AM Gareth Bennett to enter the fray, with an insightful analysis of the situation, and a solution which would satisfy all concerned: “Rather than getting into a row about a name, Welsh Labour and their bedfellows in Plaid Cymru should be working to build bridges with the Government in Westminster to secure the Brexit that the people of Wales voted for,” he insisted.
“Coupled with their bogus legislation on a supposed ‘power grab’, the people of Wales will see this for what it is; a cynical attempt by Plaid and Welsh Labour to claim they’ve been hard done by yet again.
“The people of Wales voted by a clear majority for Brexit, far more than the very few who cling on to a vain hope of a ‘Welsh Republic’. It’s time the establishment in Cardiff Bay and London got on with the day job and stopped their pointless virtue signalling.”
This statement, while proving conclusively that no topic cannot be linked – at least in the mind of a UKIP AM – to Brexit, did little to indicate the party’s stance on the matter.
The comments sections of any article concerning the subject were an education, in the loosest sense of the word. Responses ranged from calling those in support of the change gutless appeasers, to others suggesting that Welsh Nationalist outbursts like this were the reason that Wales can’t have nice things.
Enter Rod Liddle.
In his column for the Times, the former Today Programme editor wrote: ‘The Welsh, or some of them, are moaning that a motorway bridge linking their rain-sodden valleys with the First World is to be renamed the Prince of Wales Bridge. In honour of the venal, grasping, deranged (if Tom Bower’s new biography is accurate) heir to the throne. That Plaid Cymru woman who is always on Question Time has been leading the protests. They would prefer it to be called something indecipherable with no real vowels, such as Ysgythysgymlngwchgwch Bryggy. Let them have their way. As long as it allows people to get out of the place pronto, should we worry about what it‘s called?’.
This 100 word snippet has so far led to at least 19 complaints to Ofcom – or one for every five words – and in fairness it is difficult to see how Mr Liddle could have managed to insult or denigrate more aspects of Welsh life and culture in such a short article.
Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts, told Radio Cymru’s Post Cyntaf: “The two things in particular which incensed me were his attempts to belittle the Welsh language, and to compare poverty in Wales with England’s wealth as a first world nation as something amusing.
“We have to ask when we should put up with this and whether or not the Sunday Times cares about readers here in Wales.”
Carmarthen Mayor and veteran journalist Alun Lenny said: “As a supposedly highly-experienced journalist Rod Liddle has let himself down badly by writing such puerile stuff. His sneering comments about ‘rain sodden’ Wales not belonging to the First World and his attempt to get a cheap laugh at the expense of the Welsh language is the basest racial stereotyping.
“At a time when anti-Semitism dominates the political agenda, it’s deeply disappointing that the Sunday Times allowed such a nasty and offensive little article to be published. You must not be nasty to the Jews, but it seems we Welsh are fair game.”
Moving forward, in the somewhat unlikely event that the massed discontent surrounding the name change in Wales has any effect on the UK Government and Royal Family, several suggestions for a new name have been floated.
Pont Arthur – thus referencing the Prince of Wales’ middle name and a national hero – was one suggestion. Given that the tolls are due to be abolished this year, the Rebecca and her Daughters Bridge has a certain ring to it.
If a royal reference was a requisite, Carmarthen East AM Adam Price provided one: “If we must name this bridge after a prince let it be Owain, surviving son of the last real Prince of Wales (pre-Glyndwr) who, arrested at age eight, spent his entire adult life in a wooden cage in Bristol Castle so the Welsh would know their place. If only we knew our own history,” he remarked.
Aberaeron’s Lib Dem County Councillor perhaps hit the nail on the head. “Can’t decide which comes first in my train of thought – offence? certainly, Anger? most definitely, or should indifference top my list? Because in Wales, it will always be the Severn Bridge – and a mighty fine name that is!”
Public feel ‘disengaged’ from Parliament
RESEARCH by The Hansard Society suggests that the public is increasingly disenchanted with the UK’s system of government.
Founded in 1944, the Hansard Society is dedicated to expounding the principles and practice of parliamentary democracy and its challenges. It is widely recognised as the Westminster Parliament’s ‘critical friend’.
Contrary to a belief peddled by some commentators, the research, published in the 16th Audit of Public Engagement, finds that the public care about political issues. However, the research also shows that many are unhappy and frustrated about the way in which Parliament works. As a result, a significant proportion of voters are ready to consider a radical change to our system of government.
Over one-half of the Audit’s respondents think that what the country needs is a ‘strong’ leader, prepared to break the rules. Around 40% think that the government could better deal with the country’s problems if it was not tied to parliamentary votes.
72% say the system of governing needs ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of improvement. That figure is a significant increase on the previous year, itself at a worrying level of 67%. The number of people who say the system needs ‘a great deal’ of improvement has risen eight points in a year, to 37%.
Asked whether the problem is the system or the people, the largest group (38%) say ‘both’.
When asked which institutions are most likely to act in the public interest, UK citizens have more confidence in the military and judges than in politicians. Politicians will be pleased to see that they still rank ahead of political parties, big business and newspapers as more likely to act in the public interest.
Strikingly, only 25% of the public have confidence in MPs’ handling of Brexit. People were asked whether key groups’ and institutions’ handling of Brexit had given them more or less confidence in these groups and institutions to act in the public’s best interest. 60% said they had less confidence in political parties, 60% in the government and 57% in MPs as a result of their handling of Brexit. Confidence had been driven down the least in civil servants (41%) and judges (35%) as a result of their handling of Brexit.
75% say the main political parties are so divided within themselves that they cannot serve the best interests of the country. 50% say the main parties and politicians don’t care about people like them.
Well over half the public are downbeat about the state of Britain – 56% think Britain is in decline, 63% think Britain’s system of government is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful, and 66% think most big issues facing the country today don’t have clear solutions.
The public is evenly split between those who prefer politicians who make compromises with people they disagree with (48%) and those who prefer politicians who stick to their positions (45%). 66% think politicians should be able to say what’s on their mind regardless of what anyone else thinks about their views.
Despite the legislative chaos following the last Brexit referendum, 55% still think that big questions should be put to the public in referendums more often than today.
The Audit suggests a dissolution of the ties between the governed and their representatives. Although core indicators of political engagement remain stable, beneath the surface the strongest feelings of powerlessness and disengagement are intensifying. The number who ‘strongly disagree’ that political involvement can change the way the UK is run (18%) has hit a 15-year high. 47% feel they have no influence at all over national decision-making – a new high for the Audit series.
At the national and local levels, the numbers of those feeling they have no influence at all have jumped by seven and nine points in a year, respectively. This intensification of the strongest feelings of powerlessness has occurred even as the overall measures of people’s sense of influence, which include those who feel less strongly, have declined only slightly since last year.
Generation gap spells trouble for Tories
ON MONDAY, the Conservative think-tank Onward published a report into generational voting patterns, policy priorities and political values.
The report considers why age has become the key dividing line in British politics, what has happened since the last general election, and what can be done to win over millions of younger people deserting the centre-right in considerable numbers.
The report follows a detailed 10,000 sample poll, conducted by Hanbury Strategy. It is the largest study of the generation gap since age became the key political dividing line in British politics.
Younger and older voters have always been politically different, but never by this much
In 2017, the gap between younger and older voters was 50 points larger than the post-war average since 1945 and five times higher than in 2010. It started, in 2015 before Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party. This gap has grown, not narrowed, since the last General Election.
In 2017, “the tipping point age” – the median age at which a voter is more likely to vote Conservative than Labour – was 47 years old. The report establishes that, since the election, “the tipping point” has risen by 4 years to 51 years old.
The Conservative age curve is getting steeper. Among 18–24-year-olds, 14% said they would vote Conservative if there was an election today. 62% said they would vote Labour. 9% of this group said they would vote for the Liberal Democrats.
Among those over 65 years old, the opposite was true, 56% of respondents said they would vote Conservative, against 24% for Labour. The only groups with a net positive vote for Conservatives are 55–64s and voters over the age of 65.
Projecting the results of the survey forward to 2022 shows that the Conservatives face a wipeout in Wales.
If age continues to be a predictor of vote intention, the Conservatives are also in trouble in London. For example, Putney, which has a majority of just 3.3%, has 2.6 younger people for every older person. Other Conservative seats potentially affected by the demographic shift include the Cities of London and Westminster, Hendon, Chelsea and Fulham, and Uxbridge and South Ruislip (currently held by would-be PM Boris Johnson).
According to Onward, the dissonance between different age groups largely down to the Conservatives’ failure to win over younger voters. 28% of under-35s would consider voting Conservative, but fewer than 17% say they would do so if an election were held today. Onward says that this amounts to 3 million voters young Conservative considerers which could be won over but currently would not vote for the party.
Polling among the younger age group suggests that on some policies, the Conservatives could be knocking on an open door. 18-24s are most in favour (63%) of keeping more of their own money and paying less tax. However, they also favour making the economy fairer, not just bigger. Nearly two-thirds of people favour “reducing the gap between rich and poor” over “working to create faster economic growth”, with 18-24s most in favour (67%).
On immigration, there is net support for reducing immigration in every age bracket, within every ethnic group, and among Remain voters.
In terms of priorities, the environment is the third top issue for 18-24-year-old voters and younger voters.
Notably, immigration is of far lesser importance to younger voters than older ones, a reverse of the position on welfare benefits, about which older voters are far less exercised. All age groups regard the NHS and Brexit as the top two priorities.
A disconcerting gap is rising in the Conservatives’ appeal to female voters. Only 8% of 18-24-year-old women would vote Conservative today, which correlates heavily with pessimism: 56% of women think the next generation will be worse off than their own. Meanwhile, Asian voters (42%) are nearly as likely to consider voting Conservative as White voters (44%), but only half as many would do so today.
Chairs want impact assessment reform
SIIAs, or Strategic Integrated Impact Assessments, to give them their full name, can affect everyone in Wales.
The Welsh Government publishes SIIAs alongside its draft budgets to show how funding allocations will affect particular services or sections of society.
An SIIA could show the impact a particular health programme is expected to have on young people, or how money dedicated to a work programme will benefit people from poorer areas affected by poverty.
In 2015-16 the Welsh Government consolidated a number of different types of impact assessments into one. An SIIA assesses the impact of budget decisions on:
• Equalities and human rights;
• Children’s rights;
• The Welsh language;
• Climate change;
• Rural proofing;
• Biodiversity; and,
• Economic development.
Concerns have been raised in previous years about the quality and detail of impact assessments, which is what prompted a concurrent inquiry by three National Assembly committees.
Among the concerns was a belief that, in some cases, there is a lack of clarity about what has actually been assessed. The Welsh Government also only publishes the results of impact assessments but not the detail from which their conclusions are drawn.
There are further concerns the current process is the ‘wrong way round’, with factors such as children’s rights and equalities appearing to be used as tools to justify spending, rather than demonstrating how those factors influenced decision-making.
The Children, Young People and Education Committee, Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee and the Finance Committee looked at how the Welsh Government plans for future spending and how it assesses the impact of its budgetary decisions.
The Committees jointly concluded that the Welsh Government should go back to fundamental principles. That the focus should be ‘what approach will be most effective’, rather than ‘which element of the assessment is the most important?’
The Committees agreed the Welsh Government needs to be clear about why it conducts an assessment, who uses it and what they hope to understand from it.
They believe for impact assessments to have any value, they must meaningfully inform how funding is allocated to which areas. The Committees did not believe that there was sufficient evidence of this happening at the moment.
The Committees also want to see a transparent account of the negative, as well as the positive impacts of budget allocations, so a full picture can be considered. They stated that honesty about the difficult trade-offs that have to be made is essential for public confidence in decision-making, especially in the current economic climate.
In a joint statement, the three Chairs of the Committees, Lynne Neagle AM, John Griffiths AM and Llyr Gruffydd AM said: “In recent years each of our committees has had something to say about budget impact assessments. We felt the time had come to work together to shine a joint spotlight on this, with a particular focus – given our respective remits – on the impact of budget decisions on equalities, children and young people.
“We believe SIIAs should be used to inform, steer and influence change. We are concerned that they appear to be used currently to reflect or justify decisions which have already been made.
“Furthermore, we are concerned by what appears to be a growing tendency to pass responsibility for impact assessments to local bodies such as health boards or local authorities, for which there is no legislative basis.
“We recognise that assessing the impact of budget discussions is no mean feat, but for impact assessments to have any value, they must meaningfully inform financial allocations – as things stand, it is not clear to us that the way in which they are undertaken delivers that aim.”
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