Daran Hill welcomes a bit of life thrown into First Minister’s Questions

June 25th, 2012

First Minister’s Questions in the National Assembly often leaves me cold. It possesses neither the high camp of Westminster nor the serious scrutiny of an Assembly debate or Committee hearing where people actually care and are really interested in the answers they receive. Far too often First Minster’s Questions lack substance and often feel a bit glib.

This is not the fault of any person or party but the First Minister is the key person in setting the tone and he is perhaps a little too careful about what he says. His answers are always well delivered but they are not necessarily great debating stands. Partly this is down to changed context. It is too easy for Carwyn to blame Cameron or Clegg in a way that Rhodri was never able to blame Blair, even if he had wanted to.

It is easy – and to his mind right – to refer to the Westminster government as the root of all evil. Maybe it is also to do with Carwyn’s legal background. He is precise in his language and does not like giving hostages to fortune.

The quality of the exchanges are also rather patchy. All too often the balls the First Minister are bowled are predictable. Sometimes they deal with the events of the previous week rather than a contemporary issue or, Even worse, sometimes they are the same ones as the week before. It often induces a sense of déjà vu as you try and stay with a whole hour of exchanges that regularly have lost all sense of oomph by half way through (if they possessed any oomph at all).

It has not always been so. With Rhodri Morgan there would always be a random tangent every week. His eclectic memories and ability for total recall, especially relating to sporting matters, often made him a little like a political Bob Monkhouse, being able to link anecdotes on varying topics during a journey that only Rhodri could navigate. It was often bewildering to behold, but at least there was something on a weekly basis that would make you listen because you weren’t quite sure where he was going to go next. He mostly didn’t say anything new but it was entertaining in the way it unfolded.

Last week Carwyn captured a bit of the Rhodri spirit. Parts of the Senedd were more than a little taken aback when he responded to a question on Tuesday on the economic value of ports by reflecting:

“I did notice the Scottish Government no longer wishes to have the nuclear submarine base at Faslane, it no longer wishes to house the UK naval nuclear fleet. There will be more than a welcome for that fleet and those jobs in Milford Haven.”

Since Carwyn does not do unscripted or off the cuff, it was clearly a planned response, and a political line he wanted to set out clearly.

This missile certainly hit its target on the Plaid benches, prompting the entire party to become animated for the remainder of the day in condemning the “lazy approach to policy development” and responding with the now customary online petition. It will also cause a bit of fallout in Labour too, which has its own section of opponents to nuclear weapons, some of whom sit on the Assembly benches.

Most impactfully, however, it made the transition to the broader media and therefore will have reached people in their homes through the news. A central problem with the Assembly in the past is that because it has lacked powers it has also lacked the ability to make a regular impact on people – to get them to notice, to listen, and then get them talking. An invitation from the First Minister like this, and certainly the way in which Plaid and the media have responded, means there is a chance that this is an issue, however hypothetical, which has the potential to do just that.

Without getting into the whys and wherefores of nuclear deterrence – some of us did enough of that in the 1980s – what Carwyn achieved on Tuesday last week was to “do a Rhodri” with a twist. It was a tangent with a purpose and with politics.

And the Assembly desperately needs more politics and more surprises. Political consensus may not be as persistent as it once was in the Senedd, but it still often feels too cosy or contrived, lacking edge and bite. That is a collective problem and if Carwyn can say something as sharp every week then politics in Wales will be that little bit more interesting and that little bit more meaningful.

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Daran Hill is Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Positif Politics

2 Responses to:“Carwyn does a Rhodri with a twist”

  1. Jeff Jones says:

    The real question is should a politician in any devolved administration use the institution to talk about issues which are not the responsibility of that institution. Would the German government, for example, take any notice of any comment from the Minister President of any of the Lander on Foreign Policy or Strategis issues? At Defence questions in January this year a Tory MP for one of the Plymouth constituencies offered Plymouth as an alternative. The problem with a replacemt for Faslane is not the harbour but the Coulport facility which houses the nuclear war heads which are manufactured at Aldermaston. It would take at least 10 years and £2 billion to build a new Coulport. As for Milford Haven anyone suggesting the location as a site for nuclear submarines should ask why, given its natural attributes and geographical position, it was rejected when the decision was made in the 1960s to locate Polaris at Faslane. I would also have thought that any sensible politician commenting on any new base in the unlikely event of Scottish Independence would have at least read the work produced by Professors Walker and Chambers. In their 2002 paper (available here) they include the following interesting quote in the footnotes: “It remains the case that refineries (in Milford Haven) would have to close if a new submarine base were to be located there.” This was written before the liquid gas terminal and the new power station had been built. It would also be interesting to see the reaction to any planning application for a new Coulport in Pembrokeshire for a start. The Assembly wasn’t created to be entertaining. It was established to improve governance and hopefully also to improve the delivery of public services. Rather than fantasy off the top of the head poltiics we really need in my opinion politicians who are prepared to question why a middle ranking power such as the UK still feels the need to be a nuclear power when the richest country in Europe, Germany, shows no interest whatsoever in continuing to live in the 20th century.

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  2. Anthony James says:

    What seems obvious is that the Assembly is a talking shop with very limited spheres of influence, consequently – Who cares what Carwyn says? Very few. Since only 15% of the electorate originally voted for devolution we can hardly be surprised. Now that the devolved Assembly is in place it has achieved a few very noteable successes particularly in reinforcing the Welsh national identity and language. Things Welsh, including education and health, have been managed to the benefit of all but one does not see the economic benefits otherwise. One would have hoped to see a reduction in County Council costs as an extra layer of government after all has been imposed. The aspiration to have more powers was again put to the electorate and again a minority voted. Let us hope, now that the ball is rolling, those few who did vote will be able to cock a snook at those who did not, and that the Assembly can really deliver tangible net value to the poeple of Wales and the rest of the UK.

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