Monday, July 26, 2004

One thought leads to another... Drugs, drink and devolution

Well, British smokers (of whom I am one) should take note that smoking bans in pubs and restaurants (and other public places) are definitely on the way, although it's likely to take up to ten years. (The selfish addict in me, who can barely imagine a pint of beer without a fag, is dismayed; the responsible citizen knows perfectly well that it's indefensible to subject mostly minimum-wage bar workers and waiters to her noxious habit.) Some American readers will probably be shocked that it's taken us so long. They might also be surprised - unless I'm wrong in my sense that this is another of those things legislated at state level in the US? - that it is firmly agreed that this should be done nationally and not left to piecemeal local authority initiatives. "The one thing that unites all sides on this debate is that if the government is going down the route to a ban, it should not be left to local authorities to decide... You'll end up with strange situations where, say, Leicester allows smoking and Birmingham bans it."

... Reading which reminded me strongly of the situation created by the Welsh Sunday Closing Act of 1881. It used to be a standard complaint of tourists in Wales that you couldn't get a drink on a Sunday. But increasingly during the twentieth century, that was the case only in certain parts of Wales, since the Act allowed for polls every seven years, at district level, for voters to decide: 'wet' or 'dry'?

The movement was not always in the 'wet' direction, however. Even after a district had voted for Sunday opening, only 500 registered voters had to request it at the seven-year mark for a new poll to be held. (In)famously, that was what happened in Dwyfor (in Gwynedd) in 1989, and the district went 'dry' - on a turnout of less than nine per cent. And for the next seven years, there was a weekly exodus of Porthmadog drinkers down the road a couple of miles to Penrhyndeudraeth in neighbouring 'wet' Meirionydd for their Sunday pints. (Fortunately, Coleg Harlech, where I studied in 1994/5, is in Meirionydd...)

The last polls were held in 1996, after which all of Wales was 'wet'; a provision in the Sunday Licensing Act of 2003 pre-empted any further turnabouts that year, and for good. Time called on drink ban rule.

... Now, sometimes, it's stated that the 1881 Act was the first piece of specifically Welsh legislation in Parliament. Which is not quite true, since that leaves out the 'Acts of Union' (1536-43). Still, the Sunday Closing Act was the first of the 'modern' Parliamentary Acts for Wales, stemming from pressure within the country itself and associated with the rise of Welsh national(ist) consciousness (at that time, as the nature of the Act might suggest, very much a Nonconformist, middle-class, Liberal movement. Other landmarks included the Disestablishment of the Church in Wales in 1920.) And so let's leave out lots of complicated history now and fast forward to devolution.

In both the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, there have been plenty of teething problems and successes alike. For many of us, the lefty tendencies of both to stick two fingers up at New Labour is, naturally, a bonus (Labour may have the most seats in both institutions but a) their control is not absolute, and b) Labour here still has a strong Old Labour core. Makes a big difference). It's been a recurring feature of education policy; the latest in Wales is the decision to scrap testing of school kids at 11 and 14. The Scottish Parliament told Labour where to stick its up-front tuition fees; (some) Welsh university students still get (partial) grants (the Welsh Assembly doesn't have the powers to abolish tuition fees). Amongst other things.

But when it came to finding suitable homes for these key new institutions... oh dear. Escalating costs, rows over locations and designs, delays... The Welsh Assembly sacked its architect, couldn't make up its mind what project to go for (the moderately expensive cobbled-together or the much more expensive tailor-made?). Estimated costs started at £26.6 million, and will end up somewhere over £40m. But this is mere childs play compared to the Scottish disasters. Originally, this was going to cost £40m. Today, pretty much complete and ready for the MSPs to move in in a few weeks' time, it has in fact cost ten times that. The recent auditor's report is full of condemnation, quite rightly. the whole saga's been a disgrace. But, well, it's agreed that it's a fantastic piece of architecture. And both Wales and Scotland now have buildings designed for politics in the twenty-first century, which is frankly more than you can say about the Westminster Houses of Parliament.

Guardian special political reports: Scotland; Wales; Northern Ireland

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:04 PM

    Public smoking laws in the U.S. vary on moe than just a state level, which would give "only" fifty sets of rules (discounting the District of Columbia). The reality is much worse. Most of the places I've been, smokng bans are handled at the local level, which means that in the Denver area you can have 1 jurisdiction that allows smoking in restaurants and bars (Broomfield) surrounded by several others (Boulder, Louisville, Superior, Westminster, and Denver) that don't.

    Since the areas merge into a largely seemless blob of suburbia, sometimes the only way to tell exactly where you are is by the signs on business doors that indicate whether smoking is allowed. A national policy would be easier, but likely won't happen due to the power of the smoking lobby at the national level.



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