(Title Image: Rebecca Evans AM via Twitter)
May 6th marked the 20th anniversary of the first elections to the Senedd. Yesterday, AMs past and present gathered for an address and reception following a bog standard day of plenary business.
A heavy responsibility
In her address, the Llywydd, Elin Jones (Plaid, Ceredigion), recounted how nervous and excited the “Class of ’99” were when they first took their seats, but nonetheless devolution has allowed Wales to plough its own furrow, becoming the first legislature in the world to achieve gender balance in 2003. Since 1999, 142 individuals have served as AMs.
“We, elected AMs and staff, have overseen the building of our new democracy over this last 20 years and it will be the youth parliamentarians of today and others who will be here to continue our work. They have never lived in a Wales without its own Parliament. For them, devolution will one day be a distant memory belonging to a time before governing our own affairs was the natural state of being for our nation, just as it is for all nations.”
– Llywydd, Elin Jones
Some elements of devolution have been more “painful and laborious” – particularly the Legislative Consent Order (LCO) system, which was eventually scrapped in 2011 following the successful referendum on law-making powers. If the Senedd was to fully reach its potential though, it needs further changes:
Challenges and opportunities
The First Minister, Mark Drakeford’s (Lab, Cardiff West) core message was that while it was time to celebrate what’s been achieved, it was also time to face up to the challenges ahead.
It was easy to forget just how rocky the start of devolution was – a narrow vote in favour and within the first year three party leaders had been replaced; “it seemed to be a place on a knife-edge”. Twenty years ago, law-making and tax-varying powers would’ve seemed unthinkable – as would leaving the EU.
“That sense of a progressive social justice agenda for Wales has been the hallmark of our first 20 years, and I hope it will be there through the next 20 years as well. Just as I hope that we will demonstrate that the devolution journey is not yet over, that the things that we have added to the repertoire of our responsibilities in the first 20 years are not the end of devolution.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford
There’ve also been a number of cultural and economic changes that in 2019 were unthinkable in 1999 – economic inactivity being lower than the UK average and public smoking reduced to negligible levels. In negative terms, politics has become more divisive inside and outside the chamber when there was once a broad cross-party consensus. We’re also in one of the longest periods of public spending restraint for 200 years; “foodbank” wasn’t even a word in 1999.
Other future challenges picked up on by the First Minster include climate change and generational inequality.
As some of you may have seen, I’m doing a series of posts throughout this week marking the 20th anniversary over at State of Wales.