Election 2016: What has assembly ever done for me?

Here is a question for your next pub quiz: What is the most iconic number in modern Welsh politics? It is four digits and so significant that one prominent Welsh politician even chose it for a Pin number he would never forget.

It is a number less memorable, granted, than the lowest majority ever at a general election - just three votes, when Labour held Carmarthen in February 1974, or the single vote that defeated Cardiff MP and Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in the Commons and brought down his Labour government in 1979.

Have to hurry you... No-one? It is 6721, of course; the number of votes that changed Welsh history - the wafer-thin winning margin out of more than one million votes cast in the referendum that finally approved devolution for Wales; a victory secured in the very last result declared in the small hours of a September morning nearly 20 years ago.

If one person in 100 had voted no instead of yes that day, the Welsh Assembly would not have happened.

How things can change.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption What has the Welsh Assembly ever done for us?

As the battle lines form up for what will be the fifth election to the Assembly next month, just how can we explain why Wales has gone from rejecting devolution by a thumping four to one in 1979, then winning the re-run by the wispiest of whiskers, to a position now where any major, vocal opposition to devolution seems to have virtually evaporated?

Roger Scully, professor of political science at Cardiff University, is Wales' pre-eminent reader of electoral runes, chief cruncher of political numbers - from real votes in real ballot boxes and from those oh-so-influential if sometimes maddeningly unreliable opinion polls.

"A lot of people feared there would be this running divide in Welsh politics after that 1997 referendum, with those supporting devolution and those not, but our research suggests that most people fell in line with the idea by 2003," he said.

"Surprisingly, the diehard opponents had shrunk by then to a small minority... 10-15%... and that hasn't really changed."

So have the people of Wales really learned to love their assembly and the Welsh Government that has formed from it?

Monty Python

Or, with the likely turnout of voters in May predicted by Prof Scully to be little more than 40%, will the real winner be the other 60%, the apathetic majority, who may think - if they think about it at all - 'Why should I be bovvered to vote, anyway?'

And is there any convincing answer to the awkward question posed by the factory worker, the busy shopper, harassed mother, man in the street, or hoodie in the heol: "What...", to paraphrase the immortal words from Monty Python's Life of Brian, "... has the Welsh Assembly ever done for us?"

Those are some of the questions I have been putting to people who ought to know the answers, or think they do, anyway, in the run-up to the assembly elections on 5 May.

I will be trying to make some sense of what they say over the next couple of weeks - but not by focusing on the details of one party's policies as opposed to another's.

That is not primarily what interests me here. Despite having covered politics as a journalist for nearly 30 years, I come to look at these elections knowing surprisingly little about how the assembly and the Welsh Government really work.

Image caption Robert Orchard

Though the first decade of my career at the Western Mail and then BBC Wales from the mid 1970s was dominated, politically, by the campaign to win that elusive holy grail of devolution, I had moved on to covering UK politics for the BBC by the time those 6,721 voters placed their fateful cross in the yes box.

So, though I have lived in Cardiff for 40 years, I have unashamedly, well, OK, slightly ashamedly, tended to focus more on UK politics at Westminster and not the teething and growing pains of the assembly that has been virtually on my doorstep.

So talking to people in the last few days to try to find out just how Welsh devolution works - if it works - and why we should care, anyway, has felt at times a bit like studying a newly-discovered political tribe.

"It's life, captain, but not as we know it at Westminster."

Or is it? Join me, gentle reader, on this voyage into the unknown… to this undiscovered bilingual, unicameral, political jungle where the natives are growing restless as their election day of reckoning draws nigh and human sacrifices will be demanded… Listen. What might the great Dylan have made of it?

Corruption scandal

'To begin at the beginning: it is spring, moonless night in Cardiff Bay, starless and barrage black. Time passes. The assembly dissolves. Manifestoes are manifested. Politicians politick. From where you are, you can hear their dreams, endlessly, on the Welsh news. Time passes, slowly.

In the Richard-Roger'd, doubleglaze-glitter'd, sun-spatter'd Senedd close by the fishingboat-bobbing sea, something is stirring' and it is a tale of lies, power, seething ambition, treachery, greasy poles, suspect polls, pole-dancing sleaze and sex... lots of it.

The first minister is mired in a corruption scandal; the ruling coalition is thrown into chaos by the death of a party leader in flagrante with a prostitute; a husband and wife vie acrimoniously to replace him while a glamorous TV journalist - married to the first minister's son - sits on a story that would destroy The Great Helmsman, to save her marriage - after it is revealed she is a former prostitute when a former client turns up as a creepy, Mandelson-esque spin doctor to another coalition partner.

Image caption S4C's political thriller set in the Assembly, Byw Celwydd or Living a Lie

Some of this never happened.

It is just another day in S4C's political thriller set in the assembly, Byw Celwydd or Living a Lie.

Scripted by one of Wales' most successful writers, Meic Povey, the first series, with English subtitles, finished in February after causing a minor flurry in the UK press, with the Daily Mail calling it alliteratively a "political drama stuffed with sex, subterfuge and subtitles".

S4C certainly seem happy with the results: Meic Povey has said a second series would start filming in June, though he is coy about giving away any likely plot-lines, except to say that the embattled first minister, played by Richard Elfyn, will be driven more and more into a corner.

House of Cards

The series has been likened to a Welsh Borgen, the Danish political thriller which was a surprise ratings hit on network BBC TV.

Povey insists he has never watched it, but there are certainly echoes of another political drama - the machinations of Kevin Spacey as the scheming American politician in House of Cards.... Make that House of Bards for the Cardiff Bay version?

So, aren't his plot lines a little far-fetched, to put it mildly? Povey does not think so. He said he has been very interested in politics all his life and this was a chance to write something "a bit deeper" than what he calls a standard S4C "soapish" series.

"The only thing that drives drama is conflict so we went for the idea of coalition - the hell of coalition, where the parties absolutely hate each other.

"Just as Labour and Plaid Cymru hated each other's guts when they were in coalition, I went for the idea of a rainbow coalition between the non-Labour parties as the assembly government. It was not that far-fetched. That did almost happen after the elections in 2007.

"If you go down to the assembly and follow the goings-on there, it is often quite boring.

"I like to think what I wrote reflects a lot of what actually happens in the bay. There is a lot of bickering and tension. You never see that, of course."

Image caption Meic Povey

Some senior AMs are privately hating something else: the fact S4C was given permission to film scenes for the series inside the assembly building (though not in the debating chamber itself).

One fumed off the record at being "livid"' that permission had been refused for the latest James Bond adventure to film in the Senedd, which would have been a boost for the assembly's profile, yet it was considered appropriate to be associated with "some undergraduate-type S4C drama".

But Povey said the reaction to the series from AMs and others working in the assembly had been largely positive at a private showing in the Senedd attended by some 200 people in December and that the political story always had to be the main driving force, not the human or domestic side, but he revealed he actually toned down a number of the storylines that were based on real life.

'Sex things up'

"Look at the latest thing with the Conservative, John Whittingdale, who went out with a dominatrix (Un-Whittingly, it seems) but did not tell the prime minister the press knew about it when he was later offered a cabinet post.

"You couldn't make it up. Time after time, you are thinking why did they do that? People do that because they are human, just like you and me... they have weaknesses and strengths. I think we were quite reserved, actually.

"But yes, you have to sex things up a bit at times. It can be deadly boring and we are doing drama, after all. The assembly can be like a glorified county council but over the 17 years it has certainly raised the profile of the nation."

Well, it has certainly raised something and next week I will be looking at what the real politicians have to say for themselves, their parties and the assembly, including the charge that one reason so few people will probably vote is that however they vote, they will still end up with a Labour-dominated Welsh government in a land where Labour has only failed to come out on top in one nationwide election since 1918.

Oh, and we will try to discover -what has the Welsh Assembly ever done for us?

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