Devolution and its misrepresentations

As is the case whenever he mentions a devolved policy area, there’s a lot of handwringing going on about this tweet from Jeremy Corbyn regarding the National Health Service(s) in the UK:

There are criticisms that he is misrepresenting who is actually ‘in charge’ of healthcare –a devolved issue — throughout the UK, and accusations that he ‘only cares about England’. There are grains of truth here, but it’s worth interrogating these criticisms further.

Obviously it’s important to point out what policy areas are devolved: low political literacy is one of the biggest challenges we face in Wales. It’s also true that Westminster Labour are guilty of frequently disingenuously misrepresenting devolved issues.

But it’s also disingenuous to criticise Corbyn for talking about the Tories ruining the NHS. Because, devolved or not, Tory austerity is ultimately responsible for the difficulties in funding universal healthcare in Wales.

No, the English Health Secretary is not responsible for the NHS in Wales. But the Minister for Health in the Assembly is not ultimately responsible for the NHS in Wales either: the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Westminster is. It is futile, short-sighted and parochial to criticise Welsh Labour for not adequately spending the pocket money they receive from central government.

Yes, Labour could do a lot more in the Senedd to mitigate austerity (in the same way that local councils could too), but they’re still hamstrung by Westminster no matter what. This is the inherent bind of devolution, its built-in flaw. So when Corbyn says we desperately need to kick out the Tories in Westminster to save socialised healthcare in Wales, he’s right, despite the apparent ignorance or misrepresentation of devolution.

This wouldn’t change if Plaid Cymru were in charge in the Senedd. In fact, winning power in Cardiff Bay could be the worst thing that ever happened to them. Leading the Senedd could be a no-win situation: it offers little apart from the opportunity to take the blame for devolution’s inadequacies. Their leadership team often claim that it would give the opportunity to show Wales what could be achieved if we had the opportunity to manage our own affairs. But it could actually have the opposite effect: they would be limited by Westminster in the exact same way that Welsh Labour are. British nationalists and the political right would use it as evidence that Plaid are not fit to govern, and by extension that Welsh independence is not viable.

Plaid, and left nationalists generally, would be better served to call this unworkable situation for what it is, instead of using it as a cheap opportunity to make short term, piecemeal gains against Welsh Labour. Devolution is not a nationalist project: it’s the recuperation of a nationalist project. Plaid should resist the temptation to play into the hands of this recuperation.

Devolution is a centre that cannot hold. It serves neither unionists nor nationalists. It was a neoliberal ‘quick fix’ designed to mitigate the limits of social democracy, and after a decade of Tory austerity in Westminster we’re starting to see its failures. It would be helpful if everybody who wants to improve life in Wales — nationalist or not — recognises it for what it is. Devolution — and holding power in the Assembly — could create an appetite for further powers, but only if its failures and limits are fully acknowledged.