This is our truth, tell us yours
In the wake of the decision by the New Stormont Fundamentalists to ignore the evidence and pursue a strategy of making sex work less safe for sex workers in Northern Ireland, Jem and myself were having a discussion about the perils of devolution for those of us who care about tolerance and liberalism.
We have different perspectives on the issue; mine is structural, and based on the forms of devolved administration in Scotland and Wales.
The first thing is to be absolutely clear; what has been devolved is the power to administer, not the power to govern. There is no structural difference between a devolved administration in Edinburgh or Cardiff and a local council -they hold their powers by the gift of Westminster, not because of any intrinsic authority they possess.
The problem with that structural definition of authorities is that it highlights the next step in the conduct of authorities whose powers are loaned to them by the centre; simply put, as my mother would have said, the devil makes work for idle hands to do. Or to put it another way, administrative meddling expands to fill the time available.
MSPs and Welsh AMs are paid as full time politician, with an assumption they’ll do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. There isn’t enough serious work to go round, so they either fill their time campaigning about issues that are ultra vires for their administration, or they delve deeper and deeper into minutiae. I once sat through a sitting of the Scottish Parliament’s petitions committee that was entirely about road traffic issues that would barely trouble the scrutiny committee of a well run local authority. Successive MSPs made vacuous speeches about operational issues that they knew too little about, and patted themselves on the back because, like talk radio, they’d allowed the petitioner to have their say in public.
Inevitably, like badly run local councils, devolved administrations can be captured by interest groups and moral entrepeneurs keen to claim a problem requires radical measures. The anti sex work industry is a coalition of such people, and their solutions enable the underworked politicians in local administrations to be seen to be doing something, rather than simply collecting salaries for the political equivalent of sitting in the garden with a Sudoku puzzle.
I was provoked into thinking about this by the resignation of Johann Lamont, a well intentioned but thoroughly second rate leader of Scottish Labour. Johann’s complaint is that Labour nationally treated Scottish Labour as a branch office. Johann appears to think this is because of some personal or psychological trait on the part of Labour leaders; there again, if she admitted it’s a logical way to run Labour, because London is where the power is, she’d be revealing that the devolved emperors are indeed naked, that behind the curtain in Holyrood is not a mighty wizard but a second rate magician trying to keep up the illusion.
So the Scottish administration will stagger along, trying to make a difference in the areas where it does enjoy powers, trying to prove it has a reason to be. The risk is that, along the way, it will throw the weak, the powerless and the marginalized under the bus.
Structurally, the Welsh Assembly behaves in exactly the same way. It eats up expenses and bureaucratic costs at a terrifying rate while delivering precious little, and is now ordering local authorities in Wales to merge or be merged in order to make sure that it can balance its budget and continue to pay AMs who live twenty miles away to stay in hotels overnight when they’re in Cardiff. If the new Barons of Butetown had the power to deal with sexwork in the way the New Stormont Fundamentalists have, they would, because, structurally, it would be a way of proving they have a greater purpose than keeping Welsh language TV in business. That prospect does as much harm to devolution as an idea as any other.