Some of the most revealing detail from newly released 1997 government files relate to Welsh constitutional affairs. The Home Office advised against the Queen opening the new Welsh Assembly, for instance, judging the institution to be ‘wholly subordinate’ to Westminster even before the people of Wales had voted for it. Tony Blair and John Prescott even thought the leader of the Assembly should be known as ‘Chief Executive’, unlike the ‘First Minister’ title bestowed in Scotland.
It has taken more than two decades, but attitudes to Welsh politics have finally changed, from both the public and politicians in Wales and Westminster. The Assembly-cum-Parliament now has primary law-making powers; our national leader is a first minister (ironically, this is translated to ‘prime minister’ in Welsh) rather than first secretary, and devolution itself is in a far less precarious position than it was after Wales voted ‘Yes’, where the majority was a wafer thin 6,721.
Some things remain the same, alas. Namely, the office of first minister lacks the grandeur, status, and practical provisions that its Scottish equivalent has enjoyed. For two decades, in appearance, structure and operation, the Welsh first minister has abided by a tradition set in stone to avoid the ‘pomp and ceremony which is associated with royalty and parliament.’
The argument has had its merits. Why indulge in perceived luxuries for politicians when the Welsh public was already so divided on whether to have an Assembly? And there have certainly been more important matters for the Welsh government and elected politicians to deal with over the course of devolution.
In spite of this, shocking events have brought into sharp focus the need to urgently reassess the provisions of the office of first minister. Protests outside the private Cardiff home of Mark Drakeford this weekend, organised by hundreds of loonies and anti-vaxxers, has led to questions over the level of security provided to the First Minister and whether the office has the resources fitting of a political leader in 2021.
Now, more crucially, a spotlight is on whether an official residence should be provided to Wales’ leader; a normal part of the job in Scotland, England and elsewhere around the world, but one which still frightens those who live with the same paranoia about the public’s perception of Wales’ political system.
There is a clear security argument for such an arrangement. Protestors would find it hard going to penetrate an official government property – as is the case with the rigorous security across various departments dotted around Whitehall and the levels of protection offered to members of the British cabinet, as well as leaders across the world.
More practically, there will come a time when the Welsh first minister will be from north Wales – something that Mark Drakeford himself has acknowledged. How would that individual be expected to reside in Cardiff for prolonged periods of the year without a permanent residence? Yes, it costs money; but it would also be an investment in the operations and safety of the first minister.
A permanent residence for the first minister of Wales would also be the first step in bringing pride and prestige to the role. For example, a self-respecting nation would never have its leader sworn-in in a room that looked like an IKEA funeral home setting, with tacky flower arrangement included. Mark Drakeford’s own oath of office had factual errors in his title – suggesting he was an Assembly Member rather than a representative of the Welsh Parliament. A small detail, perhaps, but one which is a symptom of a wider problem.
For too long, the Welsh have been surprisingly afraid to recognise that the role and responsibilities of the first minister must be reflected in how the office appears in public and operates behind the scenes. It is no longer sustainable, as the protest this weekend has shown, to pretend that the current arrangements are sufficient.
As we recover from Covid-19, there are of course bigger challenges for Welsh politicians to face. Alongside tackling the economic and public health recovery, however, it is time to confront the reality that the office of the first minister of Wales has not garnered the respect it deserves and needs to function as a political role in the decade ahead.
With a higher profile than ever as a result of the pandemic, the Welsh government should consider a first step of reviewing the provisions offered to the first minister, to understand whether they are suitable for the 21st century. More widely, politicians and the public should expect only the highest standards from the office. Its status reflects the nation as a whole. We cannot let it be dragged through the dirt much longer, for Wales’ sake.
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