The only reasonable constitutional future for Wales that is not viable is the status quo. This was the ultimate conclusion of the final report from the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales which published last week after several years of patient, diligent and thorough work. While initially set up to examine the prospect of Welsh independence, it took a much broader view, pulling in thoughts and ideas from across the constitutional divide in a way that Scotland could and must learn from.
The report looked at several potential futures for Wales – An enhanced devolution settlement, a federal UK plan and the prospect of Welsh independence – and examined the implications for various sectors of governance under each one.
The enhanced devolution package is one that will read as quite familiar to folk in Scotland – the state of devolution across the UK is highly asymmetric and the amount of power that Westminster is willing to relinquish to any given region is directly proportional to the amount of stress that region causes and will cause Westminster if the power is not relinquished.
This has resulted in Wales being some way behind Scotland in many (though not all) respects of devolution and so many of the powers being asked for, such as devolution of Police and Justice or the Crown Estate, are powers already devolved in Scotland.
The report has also identified perhaps the key weakness of devolution and has called for it to be changed. The Sewel Convention is the mechanism by which Westminster (which claims sovereignty over all things in the UK) may legislate even on devolved areas at any time of its choosing although promises to do so only when given permission by the devolved administrations and to “not normally” override that permission. However, since 2014 and especially since Brexit, Westminster has been a lot more willing to ignore that convention or to interpret “normal” times as “any time that we do not wish to override devolution”. The Constitutional Future report calls for the Sewel Convention to be made much more rigid and to be placed on a statutory footing so that Westminster can ONLY legislate on devolved areas with explicit permission. This, it should be noted, would be an essential feature of a federal plan (in some senses, the ability for the national government to legislate despite a state government is the distinguishing feature between a unitary state with devolution and a federal state). It is, however, important to recognise that the choice between “devolution” and “federalism” isn’t the same as the spectrum of centralised power versus decentralised power. Sewel aside, it’s possible to have a devolved state that is almost completely self-governing (imagine removing all of the reserved powers from the Scotland Act) and to image a federation where the federal government has almost no power at all.
The federalism aspect is one that is of great interest to me though it is the one future given the least attention in the report – largely because of a lack of demand for it from the people of Wales. It was the least popular option canvassed. It is an option put out there by some groups within Unionist circles – particularly the Liberal Democrats and factions within Labour – but it isn’t particularly well developed even by them. It often seems to be presented more as a political crutch than a solid plan. It allows these groups to sit in a “third option” which may split some voters away from the nationalist independence they oppose whilst allowing them to support unionism without standing too close to the Conservatives. As identified in my own paper on Federalism (which, in my humble opinion remains one of the most detailed examinations of the technical and structural details of the plan, something that only highlights the low bar of planning from elsewhere), too many proposals for a Federal UK start (and end) with it being a barrier to independence rather than a goal in its own right. This must end. Proponents of federalism must start to pull their plan into a state at least as detailed as that which they demand of proponents of other options if they want their to sit alongside them.
This is where the Welsh report shows its true strength though. Not in what was said but in how it brought people to the table in a way that current Scottish politics would almost seem to completely disallow – I cannot imagine another version of the 2014 Smith Commission taking place and for it to take place in a collegiate and constructive atmosphere (the Smith Commission itself involved far too much jockeying for power amongst its various actors) but it is something that is going to be essential as Scotland continues its constitutional journey – and especially if it leads to independence. We need to avoid the failure of the UK Government after 2014 – which was to squander and to not secure “loser’s consent” for the changes to come and to ensure that, almost a decade on, independence is still a live issue with support remaining solid despite the closing down of democratic pathways to achieving that independence and, even more surprisingly, despite the declining fortunes of the largest political party that supports that goal. I’m reminded in this respect of a report from a few years ago deeply exploring the concerns and fears of people in Northern Ireland towards the prospect of reunification – this report should be considered a must-read for all constitutional campaigners in Scotland regardless of the side you sit on. Whatever the destination for the constitutional future of these islands, they have to consider the fates of all of us within it. Any campaign that relies on shouting “You lost, get over it.” doesn’t deserve their ‘victory’ nor will they be able to sustain it.
I would dearly love Scotland to repeat the success of Wales in this report – one that could, if not unite Scottish politics, at least help to break down the too-tribal nature of party politics that has resulted in parties voting against each other on issues that they should be natural allies because of their views on the constitution. Too often calls for “unity” in politics actually mean something more like “and that’s why you should shut up and fall in line behind me”. If, instead, we follow the Welsh example of talking with rather than at each other, who knows where we could end up.
Image credits: Crown Copyright 2024, Welsh Government