Saturday, 27 June 2015

Reflections on a chaotic and fragmented Union – and its survival prospects ...

On June 5th I attended a conference of politicians and academics at the British Academy, London on ‘Devolution and the Future of the Union’. The event explored the prospects for the UKs changing Union hosted by the Constitution Unit of University College London (UCL) and the Wales Governance Centre. This was the first serious public affairs event I had attended in over twenty years. It is hard to believe how all-time consuming the school inspections and quality standards world had been for eighteen of them. However I soon realised that I was back in the environment I enjoy the most and had missed so much.

The subject of UK governance has been close to my heart since the late 1960s when as the Research and PR officer for the Welsh Council of Labour (as the Labour Party was called then in Wales),   I chaired a working group—set up by the Executive—to consider the party’s approach to the then seriously divisive issue of devolution of power to Wales. Labour had lost Carmarthen to Gwynfor and had come very close to losing Rhondda and Caerphilly. Apprehension was in the air. In that working group were the young Alun Michael, Paul Flynn and Bruce George who all became, like me, Members of Parliament. Also, Wynne Thomas of HTV and Swansea Sound fame, along with Barry Jones, Cardiff University and Gareth Howell… What we proposed was eventually watered down by the Welsh Executive and especially by the Welsh Labour Group of MPs led by George Thomas, Jim Callaghan, Leo Abse, Alan Williams and the old guard from the mining valleys.   Nevertheless, the policy paper formed the basis of the party’s submission to the Crowther/Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution.

The driving force behind where the Union has arrived today has had more to do with political expediency, reaction to nationalistic events (certainly in the case of Scotland), a response to the turmoil in Northern Ireland and quite frankly, a general feeling that the establishment better do something about Wales to keep them ‘quiet and content’. The matter of what to do about England has gently crossed the minds of successive Westminster administrations, but has never been seriously addressed. To be fair, John Prescott did argue the case for devolving power to the regions, but it faltered due to the lack of public support—with the project eventually falling on stony ground. However, the London Assembly with its Mayor was established and the offer of similar Elected Mayor status given to other cities—some of which have now been progressed. A new idea has also emerged, namely the Northern Powerhouse centred on the Manchester region. The Westminster village has always perceived ‘The North’ to end at Manchester, but I recall a time when it was Oxford!

So, up until quite recently, everything seemed under control to the political establishment —the principle of divide and rule seemed to be paying off. Never mind the fact that a chaotic governance landscape was emerging in the UK. Additional proposals for Scotland and Wales did come into force, but nothing earth-shattering. In fact, the additional powers proposed for Wales were proving more contentious to the Senedd and the Welsh people than they did to the government in Westminster! So Westminster felt safe in the belief that everything had calmed down some two or so years ago. Scotland appeared reasonably content with its powers, the Welsh people seemed preoccupied with concerns over how the Welsh Assembly was performing (and when to hold a referendum on tax raising powers), whilst the Northern Ireland Assembly was still beset with the problems posed by its divisive factions.

No one ever dreamt of, bargained for or foresaw the two events in Scotland that most likely will change the Union forever and has put its very survival in doubt. The close result in the Scottish Independence referendum caused panic in the political establishment—even the European Union and President Obama were called to assist the Unionists cause. But the promises made in the heat of the No campaign subsequently tied Westminster in some especially large knots. The Smith Commission then reported and all seemed well in Westminster once more—until the English started becoming restless over what might be on offer to Scotland. So, understandably, the inevitable cry went out—what about us?  Hence ‘English votes for English laws’ became a Tory mantra at the General Election. But matters were not over yet; the real tsunami came with the total devastation of all Westminster political parties by the SNP at the election. This was a truly significant event. Today, the SNP is demanding ‘Smith plus’ with further powers on job creation, taxation, welfare and wages.

The day’s deliberations at the conference did mirror the current political scenario in the UK.  The centrepiece of the whole event revolved around the future of Scotland and the Union. Yes, Wales and Northern Ireland got their 30 minutes of fame and yes, eventually the English question began to dominate matters later on. So there is no question that the SNP is driving the constitutional battlewagon. Wales is in the back seat with elements of the Labour party and the Campaign for an English Parliament struggling to get on the road at all. In fairness, Wales’s First Minister, Carwyn Jones, was well received and his call for a Constitutional Convention resonated with the gathering. He also seemed to indicate that fiscal devolution will not happen until a new Barnett floor for Wales is created. He most certainly ruled out any interest in devolving welfare services. He also made a statement, with which I fully concur, that ‘the choice is between moves towards federalism, or Scotland becoming an independent entity’. However, what surprised me was that no other Welsh political party was represented.  It was strange that no-one was in attendance from Plaid Cymru in an official capacity…

John Denham, once Labour MP and Communities Secretary, was certainly willing to face head on the question of what the emergence of a stronger English political identity will mean for the Labour party and the governance of the Union. He referred to the various initiatives underway, stating that English Votes for English Laws was only the start. He pointed to the increasing trend in City devolution as leading to a significant shift in English politics before the end of the decade—suggesting that a clearer English identity could emerge in a federal structure. I particularly noted the following quote ‘We need an English Labour party which focuses on winning a Labour majority in England. Without it, we will not focus on a Labour majority overall. There is a window of opportunity to find a democratic solution before the Union goes.’  His words have been echoed by John Cruddas MP who was involved in reviewing Labour’s policy. In addition, a discussion document has appeared in Compass, a Labour aligned magazine, on the need to develop localism and devolution, and establish a constitutional convention as well as an all-party campaign for electoral reform.

The Tories, outside of the Northern Powerhouse idea, are strangely quiet in this debate, but the pressure is building on them too. On the sidelines, but contributing to the growing agitation, are the local structures of the Liberal Democrats in the North East, North West and South West of England, who look towards regional assemblies. Also existing is Mebyon Kernow, and other North East and Yorkshire parties. Meanwhile, The Campaign for an English Parliament is more loudly describing  its aspirations—so maybe England is about to get on the constitutional battle wagon!

A significant obstacle is the continued existence of the Barnett formula, which disproportionally benefits Scotland, as well as the Tory government’s indication that Wales and Scotland must meet the financial burden themselves before demanding further powers. That was the central message of Stephen Crabb, Welsh Secretary, to the Senedd this week. So it is obvious that no additional monies will come from Westminster for further devolution given George Osborne’s programme of fiscal consolidation and his determination to shrink the public sector. This fiscal tightening is already posing problems between Westminster and the Senedd, particularly over the ‘unfairness of Barnett’, and it has produced an anti-austerity rebellion at Stormont which is threatening the power sharing agreement.

Listening to Sir Malcolm Rifkind, at the conference, and observing David Cameron generally, the Tory government is likely to continue with its approach of muddling through. They refuse to prepare and plan a coherent way forward. Those of us who support the Federal solution persist in calling for a type of Constitutional Convention. Yes, it has not been ruled out by Cameron, but it appears that party politics, rather than a well- planned investigation into the UK Constitution, will determine the Union’s future.

Meanwhile, the muddling goes on. During his speech to the Senedd, the Welsh Secretary also stated that the devolution settlement contained in the new Welsh Bill will be ‘clear, robust and lasting’. It will also give the Welsh people ‘a stronger voice over their own affairs within a strong and successful United Kingdom.’ Oh, how many times have I heard such finality?  All in all, it is constitutional chaos.

In conclusion, one of the constitutional experts attending the conference on June 5th said ‘So long as Whitehall retains three territorial Secretaries of State, devolution policy remains doomed to be weak and fragmented. David Cameron has said that safeguarding the Union is a key priority. I believe the only way he can achieve that is by making a senior Cabinet Minister responsible for devolution and the Union. Until that happens, devolution policy will continue to be reactive, muddling through.’ Wise words indeed…

This article written by Gwynoro first appeared on Cambria Nostra: 27/6/2015