Monday 30 October 2017

Think big when representing the future of Wales

This guest post by Lord Elystan Morgan first appeared in the booklet: 'Towards Federalism and Beyond.'

In order to preserve the unity of the United Kingdom (UK), the reality of devolution and the harmony between the various constituent nations of the UK, respect should be shown by the mother parliament in Westminster to the parliaments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Indeed, those are key political and social considerations.

The matter that I wish to discuss is in no way contrary to that, but runs parallel. It is a marvellously simple constitutional point, and I think I can deal with it in very short compass. It concerns the reserved powers constitution that Wales achieved under the recent Wales Act 2017, which became law earlier this year. The purpose of that Act was to change the whole pattern of devolution for Wales from a conferred model—a confetti type of approach in place from 1964 onwards, when Wales achieved its Secretary of State—to a reserved powers constitution.

However, it is axiomatic as far as a reserved powers constitution is concerned that two matters should be dominant in its establishment. The essence of a reserved powers constitution, as we appreciate, is that there is a transfer in the first instance of the totality of power from the mother parliament to the subsidiary parliament, but that at the same time there should be a reservation of a strict number of exceptions and reservations. It is axiomatic, therefore, that two conditions must prevail. First, the mother parliament must be seized of all the legislative power and authority that is relevant to the situation. That is obvious. Secondly, the mother parliament must be cognisant of the powers that it has, and must be in a position to know exactly where to draw the line between that which is transferred and that which is reserved. Neither of those conditions exists in this case.

Why is that so? I remember a piece of dog Latin that I learned many years ago when I was a law student in relation to the sale of goods: ‘nemo dat quod non habet’—no man can give that which he does not have. Or …nobody can transfer that which they do not hold! When it came to the question of deciding what powers Wales should have in the initial devolution settlement, the mother parliament did not have a mass of those powers relevant to the situation. There is a huge body of authority that is missing. Proportionally, it may be 25%; it may be 30% or 40%. Nevertheless, it is massive in relation to the totality of legal responsibility. That authority was missing from 1st January 1973, ever since the European Communities Act 1972 came into force which ruled with regard to a very considerable swathe of competences in the UK.

Many powers were never with the mother parliament in Westminster to dispose of. It could not possibly give them to Wales or to Scotland for that matter—in Northern Ireland, the situation was entirely different, because its constitution goes back to 1922. The central concept of a reserved constitution is the idea that the mother parliament has ‘on the table,’ as it were, the totality of powers that are available and relevant in the situation, and that the mother parliament looks upon those powers and says, ‘This is all that we have. This is where we draw the dividing line between the totality that is transferred and that small remnant that is retained and reserved.’

Therefore, the current Brexit negotiations will impact greatly on the Wales Act 2017. Since a good proportion of powers have historically resided in Brussels there is a real risk that these will be repatriated, of course, neither to Wales nor to Scotland but indeed, to Westminster. We must ensure a settlement that is fair, just and lasting.

What is to be done? The following matters have some relevance, broadly. Of course, there is the question of the Sewel convention, which has been written into both the Scotland Act and Wales Act. That will have its effect gradually over the years. There is also the question of the joint ministerial committee, which meets in confidence and is able to discuss, in a situation of total secrecy, matters that are of the utmost importance to the mother parliament and the devolved parliaments. There is also the question of protocols, which were greatly promised in the late-1990s when legislation relating to Scottish and Welsh devolution went through, but have since been as ‘dead as the dodo,’ I am afraid, and must be revived.

That is why I have proposed that the Prime Minister and the First Minister for Wales should be responsible for forming a body that will look carefully at the situation to determine:

o   firstly, what is the scope of legislative authority that is missing here?
o   secondly, what is the nature of that authority?
o   thirdly, what entrenched rights—what established rights—have come into being in relation to that since January 1973? 
o   lastly, what situations exist where there has been legislation under the 1972 Act which has been deemed to be incompatible with the European instruments?

Many people will say that all this is not necessary and that Wales, from Cardiff, and the Westminster Parliament can negotiate at arm’s length. I do not believe for a moment that that is feasible. We have seen exactly, over the past year, when dealing with the Wales Bill how almost impossible it was to persuade the Westminster parliament that much of what had been reserved was utterly trivial and an insult to the Welsh nation. Things such as sharp knives, axes, dogs, licensing, prostitution, hovercraft all those matters which scream for domestic consideration have now been reserved!

So, putting Brexit aside, how did we get to this rather awkward point?

In July 2014 the Supreme Court, presided over by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, was required to decide upon the crucial issue of exactly where the boundary lay between Westminster and Cardiff in relation to devolution. The matter before the court was the desire of the Welsh Assembly to pass its own legislation relating to the wages of agricultural workers in Wales. The case for the Westminster government, presented by the then Attorney General, was essentially that a decision as to wages belonged classically to the field of employment. The Supreme Court found differently and said that whenever there was in any one of the twenty fields of devolved authority an intention to transfer substantial powers to Wales, then unless there was a specific exemption to that effect, all other powers belonged to the Welsh Assembly. This is what the Supreme Court called the ‘silent transfer’. The consequence of the ruling was particularly mindboggling in that:

o   It was clear that huge areas (hitherto ‘silent’) had in fact been unwittingly transferred to the Welsh Assembly
o   In many other areas there could have been no certainty that matters had not in fact been transferred.

Much of the controversy surrounding the Wales Act emanates directly from that uncertainty described. The Act is deeply flawed and is a blue print for failure and disaster, particularly because of the fact that there are about 200 reservations—the very nature of which makes the matter a nonsense. When you deal with a long period of transferring small powers, day in day out, coming from hundreds of different sources, you create a situation that almost guarantees some constitutional neurosis on the part of many generations of Welsh lawyers. Avoiding that would be utterly worthwhile. There has to be some mutual trust and a sense of balance. If the Westminster parliament refuses to accept that, then the whole moral geometry of the situation is affected.

One could suggest that there has been a permafrost of attitude towards Welsh devolution from the beginning. I believe that it has a lot to do with the fact that Wales was England’s first colony. When thinking of many of those reservations in the Wales Act, can you imagine the Colonial Office of the UK some 70 years ago, particularly when Jim Griffiths was head of that department, approaching a British Caribbean or African colony and stating: ‘These are the trivial reservations I demand of you?

Dominion status is not about a rigid pattern of government. The principle is enunciated in the Statute of Westminster 1931 and has developed politically over 85 years thereafter. Obviously one is not speaking of a replica of the constitutional situation of New Zealand or Australia, but specifically of Dominion status in the context of Wales and these isles. It is an open secret that about 10 years ago the governments of the UK and that of Spain almost came to an understanding – this is hardly believable – about the future of Gibraltar, with a plan for some form of Dominion status as a solution. In other words the concept is so flexible, so malleable and so adaptable that it was possible for those ancient conflicts surrounding that important rock, which guards access to the Mediterranean Sea, to come very near to a friendly settlement. There are endless possibilities that can be considered. 

At this point I am tempted to mischievously highlight that for many centuries Wales was indeed a Dominion of the UK in law.  The actual wording of the Act of Union 1536 refers to the: ‘Dominion, principality and country of Wales!’

So, as I proposed when the then Wales Bill undertook its passage through the House of Lords, the Secretary of State for Wales should be responsible for establishing a working party to report to Parliament as to the operation of the reserved powers retained by Westminster, particularly those matters which can properly be regarded as belonging to the province of the devolved parliaments. The function of the working party would be to winnow out the dozens of trivial matters whose inclusion in the reserved powers list is an affront to Welsh nationhood, which are the cobwebs of colonialism and would never have been considered in the 1950s in the context of a British colony in the Caribbean or Africa. I venture to think that this is of the most crucial importance to the Welsh devolution settlement in that it seeks to correct a fatal flaw in the heart and cornel of that settlement.

The concept of devolution which inevitably espouses principles of domestic rule and subsidiarity inevitably rests fundamentally upon the acceptance of what I would call the watershed of justice and reason. This is no more and no less than an acceptance that while certain matters belong inevitably to the mother Parliament (Westminster), such as succession to the Crown, Defence and Foreign Policy, the vast bulk of the remainder are matters which palpably belong to the jurisdiction of the devolved parliament (the Welsh Assembly). A denial of this watershed is both an affront to common sense but a betrayal and devaluation of devolution. This is exactly what the Wales Act creates in Wales when functions such as liquor licensing (devolved to Wales in 1881) and the organisation of charitable collections are set amongst the now reserved powers.

I would expect the proposed working party to report to represent the broadest interests in Wales, both politically and socially. If the Secretary of State wishes to have a working party ‘off the shelf,’ as it were, he could do no better than invite the Silk Committee to sit again, remembering that this distinguished body which represented all political opinions has reported twice, unanimously and constructively, upon Welsh devolution.

Also, concurrently, a study should be advanced on the future possibilities for Wales as a land and nation, and of constitutional advancement within the terms of and consistent with the principles of the Statute of Westminster 1931, and developments thereafter. Despite the devolution of the last two decades, the UK today remains one of the most concentrated systems of parliamentary government in the democratic world. There is a desperate need for a UK -wide Constitutional Convention, with the involvement of all political parties and elements of British society, to discuss the future of the Union, particularly in the context of Brexit.

For well over a century the debate as to whether a federal, or similar, structure should be created has ebbed and flowed. All creative efforts, however, have floundered on the grim rock of fundamental disproportion. The fact that England has the vastly dominant share of the kingdom’s wealth and 82% of its population creates an imbalance which makes any federal structure a daunting task. But whilst this is true in relation to the composition of the House of Commons, why should we not consider whether a restructured, elected House of Lords could form part of the solution?

The House of Lords owes its origins to a dominant caste of nobles and aristocracy. In Saxon times they sent their representatives to the Witenagemot – the Council of Wise Men to advise their King. From that there developed the concept of government as ‘the shining ladder’.  At its top was the monarch answerable only to Almighty God. Immediately below was the House of Lords. Many centuries later, and then countless degrees lower, came the early House of Commons. When the will of the elected House of Commons encountered a brutal and existential clash with the unelected Lords in 1911, thanks to Lloyd George, the Parliament of that year guaranteed that the Commons would have its way – but subject to a delaying process.

This historic legislation, however great its impact at the time, was seen by many as a constitutional stop gap. The preamble to the 1911 Act of Parliament speaks of a more representative form of government. Many interpreted this back then as referring to an elected Second Chamber. Yet over a century later, despite the culling of hereditary peers to a low level of 92 members, the second chamber remains unelected by the public at large. Although the 1958 Life Peerage Act has provided for a wider representation of members in social and gender terms. Could not an elected House of Lords (suitably renamed the Senate) be such a federal body?

I believe the clue lies across the Atlantic. In the USA the lower house of Congress (the House of Representatives) has its members elected in proportion to population, but in the second chamber (the Senate) a different system is resorted to. Each state irrespective of its economic strength or its population has two senators. Thus the tiny population of Rhode Island has the same number of senators as California and Texas. It is a model of the enlightened and chivalrous majority towards the minority.

So a second chamber (the Senate) can carry a federal structure amongst units of disparate strengths and size given certain imaginative checks and balances. I would personally advocate a Senate of some 70 members each for the four nations of the UK. Their numbers could be topped up by 10 elected members from each of the devolved bodies and 10 representatives from the House of Commons. This federal elected Senate would have all the powers of scrutiny and examination enjoyed as present, but with broader powers to delay legislation (including regulations), albeit for a period of months rather than a year. Surely such a plan points the way forward to a more progressive Parliamentary future as a starting point?

I appreciate that this does not deal with the bountiful problems of regional devolution in England. But the background created could not be anything other than beneficial for such a principle. I will not touch upon the slogan EVEL (English Votes for English Laws) because I believe its whole campaign is ill founded. If one deducts from the 650 members of the House of Commons those Members of Parliament (MPs) that are not from England, then one is still left with a huge majority of English members. They have never been defeated on the floor of the Commons by the Celtic fringes nor, as far as I know, in any Bill Committee during modern times. Therefore England has nothing to fear.

However, I would like to touch again on the matter of Dominion status which was conferred on Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.  Although there was no formal definition of it, the Imperial Conference of 1926 described Great Britain and the Dominions as ‘autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.’ So the Statute of Westminster 1931 did not create a rigid model of Dominion status but rather enunciated a principle of immense flexibility and subtleness. The present situation in the UK is of total flux and it is therefore incumbent upon us all to consider the many possibilities existing, as who knows what the circumstances will be in five to ten years’ time from now?

I conceive of nationalism in the context of Wales as being a patriotism that knows no hatred of any other nation. That is what Welsh nationhood and Welsh nationalism at their very best should be and are. My appeal is when we are thinking of the future of Wales is to think big. If you think big, you will achieve something worthwhile; if you think small, what you will achieve will be insubstantial and inevitably lesser than what you set out to accomplish. For far too long we have begged for the crumbs of devolution, and it is now highly necessary that we should raise our expectations to be worthy of our position as a mature national entity, whether it be embarking on a journey through models of federalism, confederalism or Dominion status. That is the situation confronting us in 2017.

After being involved with the devolution issue over many decades, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that Wales is being mercilessly short changed over devolution. This assertion rests upon two incontrovertible pieces of evidence. The first was the willingness on the part of Her Majesty’s Government to contemplate nearly 200 reservations, most which were so childish and trivial as to give the lie to any sincerity concerning a reserved constitution. The second was the willingness to pretend that a lasting and long-term settlement of the division of authority between Westminster and Cardiff could even be contemplated, whilst the very substantial proportion of that authority was not in the gift of the Government, but was ensconced in Brussels. 

There is therefore a ringing challenge to Welsh political representatives, both in Westminster and Cardiff, to demand a more equitable approach on the part of the Government to the fundamental rights of Wales as a land and nation. Failure to act in this way would be a signal of disloyalty to the people of Wales. 

Monday 16 October 2017

It's time to move towards a real Senedd...

This essay by Gwynoro first appeared in the booklet: ‘Towards Federalism and Beyond’

The questions on the future of the UK Union have been gathering a strong head of steam over the last three years. Discussions had particularly ‘kicked-off’ following the outcome of the Scottish Referendum in September 2014, and the promises made by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, as well as leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties to devolve further powers to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. These, more or less, have been now enacted. Then there was the Wales Act 2017 which caused a significant amount of controversy, particularly in relation to the reserved powers aspect and defeats in the House of Lords over amendments that would have transferred responsibilities concerning transport, policing, broadcasting and water to the Senedd.

Intermixed with these issues have been the 2015 General Election and the EU Referendum of 2016. Both of which, for differing reasons, provided unexpected results, with the latter leading to the resignation of David Cameron and the emergence of Theresa May as Prime Minister.  The outcome of the EU Referendum particularly focussed the minds of devolutionists, federalists, and many in favour of independence alike, on potential future governance models for the UK Union, or even its prospects for survival, with several significantly thorny Brexit issues appearing centre stage. These included the High/Supreme Court hearings and the enactment of Article 50.

Many powerful voices joined the constitutional debate at this time, most notably the First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the much experienced Lord David Owen and, a long time supporter of a powerful Welsh Parliament, Lord Elystan Morgan. The momentum was such that the Labour Party came out strongly in favour of a Constitutional Convention, as witnessed by an event held at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff in late-March 2017. Additionally, Jeremy Corbyn spoke in support of a Convention at the Scottish Labour Party Conference in February 2017 and has reaffirmed his stance more recently.
In Wales, an emerging non-partisan and all party group called Yes Cymru produced a booklet on Welsh independence. I was pleased to have been asked to speak at three of their rallies in Carmarthen, Cardiff and Swansea over the last year or so.

Then, in spring 2017, the Prime Minister whilst breathing the beautifully rarefied mountain air of Snowdonia one weekend, emerged in London on the Monday morning to announce a snap General Election – despite having promised publicly on at least five occasions not to do such a thing. Theresa May was enticed by an opportunistic calculation, founded on a lead of 20 percentage points in the polls, a seemingly dysfunctional Jeremy Corbyn, and a considerably weakened Liberal Democrat party.  Indeed for several months prior to early-May 2017, it was forecasted that the Conservatives would have a 100-seat plus majority in Westminster following any snap election, with the Labour party annihilated. Also, in late-April 2017, a sensational poll conducted by YouGov for ITV and Cardiff University projected the Tories as winning 20 Westminster seats in Wales, Labour 16, Plaid Cymru 3 and Liberal Democrats 1. The lure of temptation was far too great for our Prime Minister to ignore.

So after a century of Labour hegemony in Wales, it looked for a few weeks during spring 2017 that we were heading towards a political earthquake of serious magnitude in nature, which would have been an enormous culture shock to the body politic of this country. But as Harold Wilson often used to say, ‘a week is a long time in politics,’ or to quote Harold Macmillan when asked about what shapes political fates, ‘events dear boy, events.’ 

Without recounting the full extent of the fateful events that transpired, the ‘strong and stable’ Theresa turned out to be ‘weak and feeble’ whilst the seemingly ineffective Jeremy became transformed with substantial crowds attending his rallies. I had not witnessed such gatherings since the 1950s when politicians like Aneurin Bevan spoke in public.  Theresa May’s performance was the poorest, if not the most disastrous, by any Tory leader in my memory, other than Sir Alec Douglas Home in 1963 and William Hague in 2001. Jeremy Corbyn on the other hand was a revelation, a man inspired, totally renewed from the inept and ineffective performer he had been at Prime Minister’s questions time over the preceding year. He was in his element as a superb campaigner, attracting unprecedented numbers of people to his meetings, wherever held across the country. Incidents such as the Conservative manifesto debacle and the appalling terrorist attacks also played a part in forming the electorate’s views.

The final outcome was effectively a hung Parliament until the Tories were saved by the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party. Now the headlines and sub-plots of that election is testing the commitment, determination and mettle of all devolutionists, federalists and other interested stakeholders engaged in the UK constitutional debate.

In the lead-up to that General Election, during early-May 2017, an opinion poll was conducted by YouGov for Yes Cymru on the question of independence for Wales. It articulated a staggering result which was absolutely unexpected in substance, and quite probably unwelcome in many political circles. The findings received little publicity at the time, being lost and buried in the ‘hurly burly’ of the ongoing UK election campaign.

This poll painted a political picture that went against all opinion and public attitude surveys in Wales since establishment of the Welsh Assembly (Senedd) in 1999. As brief background, in the last two decades, backing for independence has registered between 3% and 6% on average. In fact, the annual BBC Wales poll conducted in March 2017 by ICM revealed the following levels of forecasted support for various scenarios of Welsh governance—independence at 6%; increased Senedd powers 44%; same powers 29%; fewer powers 3%; and abolishing the Senedd 13%.

However, this survey of 1000 respondents – which incidentally is the usual sample size for opinion polling – conducted by YouGov on behalf of Yes Cymru, and published in May 2017, showed that 26% of the Welsh population favoured independence, with the percentage increasing to 33% if the then predicted Conservative majority actually materialised! Labour voters turned out to be relatively supportive of independence. Plaid Cymru voters, as expected, were too. But more importantly, the 18 to 49 age groups were found sympathetic to the prospect, which raises real questions about the future status of Wales within the UK. On removing, from the calculations, those respondents who registered as being undecided, the poll identified 47% of Labour voters backing independence (of which 23% were strongly in favour); 64% Plaid Cymru; 33% Lib Dems; 15% Conservatives; and 18% UKIP.

Two other interesting observations were highlighted. The first was that 28% of Plaid Cymru voters were against independence. The second concerned that middle band of party supporters whose vote might be ‘up for grabs’ during any referendum campaign on the issue, with their extent ranging from 8% for both Labour and Plaid Cymru to 18% of Lib Dems. 

So, post-General Election 2017, where are we in relation to exploring the future of the UK Union?  Will the progressive forces now unite to move the agenda forward? At the heart of this debate is the question of what will Labour do? Any major constitutional reform cannot happen without its serious involvement and active participation in discussions. Brexit and the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, unless radically amended, will have significant implications for the present devolution settlement. One area of particular concern to Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh is what will happen to those powers and responsibilities now delegated from Brussels, through Westminster, to the devolved administrations on matters such as agriculture and rural affairs. Will they be taken back up the chain to London in time thus completely undermining the arrangements in place? 
Here in Wales we have an added matter to contend with, and that is the manner in which Wales is perceived and reported through the media—not only across the UK but especially in our own backyard. Many commentators have written extensively about the impact of the ‘information deficit’ existing due to the inadequate news coverage of Welsh issues in our media, and the ensuing challenges faced. For instance, the level of reported interest shown in Wales for the 2016 EU Referendum (82%) was considerably higher than that for the 2016 Senedd election (59%), both of which were held only a month apart.  Without doubt, one of the major reasons for this difference was the nature and content of news reporting in Wales, including which sectors of that medium predominate in our country. When tuning into the latest UK political news, its substance is often entirely focused on events surrounding the Westminster ‘village.’ This, of course, is quite natural, but unfortunately during times of devolved elections in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, such an intense preponderance and saturation of Westminster information, clearly impacts on people’s exposure to the key campaign issues and political choices presented closer to home.

Put straightforwardly, the people of Wales are not regularly exposed to informed news coverage centring on Senedd matters. One of the most striking findings of survey data published by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) in 2015 was the significantly low number of Welsh people identified as frequently reading a newspaper produced in Wales – 5% or fewer. Today, the Western Mail disseminates the most comprehensive handling of Senedd matters, but the ABC survey revealed that fewer than 4% regularly read the paper. Further, when respondents were asked to name their main newspaper, only 1% selected The Western Mail. The Daily Mail, by contrast, is almost ten times more likely to be acknowledged as the main daily read, being consumed habitually by four times more people in Wales than The Western Mail.

Broadcasters in Wales, on the other hand, reach a far greater proportion of the population than newspapers. BBC Wales Today is the most widely followed – 37% of people frequently tune in – whilst 17% and 13% regularly follow ITV Wales Tonight and BBC Radio Wales respectively. However, UK-wide programmes are still the main source of reference for news consumption in Wales, with the ABC survey identifying The BBC News at Six or Ten as viewed by nearly 37% of respondents, whilst 30% follow the BBC News channel. ITV’s Evening News or News at Ten, and Sky News are watched less often – 11% and 13% respectively – but still rank as key sources of information relative to coverage produced in Wales. Other regular daily or weekly productions such as Daily Politics, Newsnight, Panorama, Question Time, and the like, compound the situation further in terms of ‘swamping’ any reports delivered through indigenously created programmes.

I have recently come across additional data from the ABC revealing an ever-continuing reduction in the readership of local weekly newspapers and regional dailies.  Local weekly newspapers in the UK lost print circulation by an average of 11.2%, year on year, during the second half of 2016. The figures suggest a quickening in the pace of print decline, possibly fuelled by cover price rises, editorial cutbacks and the readership moving to online sources. A redeeming feature is that nearly every regional newspaper website audited by the ABC recorded strong growth in the second half of 2016.

As already mentioned, in late-March 2017, the First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones AM, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and ex-Deputy Prime Minister Lord John Prescott came together to discuss the future of the UK Union in an event held at the Wales Governance Centre in Cardiff. It was an occasion that I was keen to attend for many reasons, including political and personal. One of my first tasks when appointed Research and Public Relations Officer for the Labour Party in Wales during 1969 was to Chair a working group charged to develop the party’s policy towards devolution. Together with Emrys Jones and Gwyn Morgan I jointly prepared the party’s evidence to the Crowther/ Kilbrandon Commission on the UK Constitution. In fact, the content of our submission essentially described a forerunner of the Welsh Assembly, which was established some 30 years or so after the Carmarthen by-election of 1966, and  following 8 General Elections and 2 devolution referenda in the intervening time.

Whatever one’s view is of the Blair Governments, it was his administrations that moved forward considerably the devolution agenda for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, since the creation of the Senedd it appears that the Welsh Labour party has been contented to accept its ‘divine right’ as the ‘natural’ party of Government in Wales, albeit if they have had to rely on the support of the Lib Dems for one period and Plaid Cymru for another. Plaid, on its part, has seemingly settled for that limited degree of devolution. Meanwhile, the Conservatives, who had previously only fared occasionally well during Westminster elections in Wales, such as in 1983 and 1992, have found themselves with a sizeable voice in administering the country. Politics is unpredictable because it could be said that the party which has benefited most from the establishment of the Senedd is the Conservatives – the very party which opposed it!

So, does Wales still have a radical electorate today? To what extent does the country actually mirror England and, if so, what has caused this to be the case? Immigration, over decades, from other parts of the UK has no doubt influenced movements in the political landscape, but its extent and impact is deeper than realised. Labour and Plaid Cymru, in particular, have been found ‘sleeping on watch.’ Their inaction, or inertia, has resulted in a significant ‘hidden Tory’ component to Welsh politics by now. But the challenges do not end there. Labour is viewed as having neglected its traditional working class areas, with its once, rock solid, loyal support going ‘on the move’ during the 2016 Senedd election
not to Plaid or Lib Dems, but rather to UKIP!

The economic and industrial structure of Wales has altered significantly in the last quarter of a century, as has the country’s demography – with 30% of the people living in today’s Wales born elsewhere. Indeed, in parts of north-east Wales, the proportion is nearer 50%, and almost 40% in the ‘Welsh heartland.’ Further, 48% of people living in today’s Wales reside within 25 miles of Offa’s Dyke, with 140,000 crossing that border each day for work purposes. The equivalent statistics for Scotland is 4% dwelling within 25 miles of the English border with some 30,000 traversing it daily.

Coinciding with this changing demographic and economic picture, there has been a notable shift in the political composition of the country’s electorate too – nearly 35% of whom favoured centre-right parties in 2016. The growth of UKIP in Wales is hard to accept – a party with its roots firmly grounded in England. However, this development should not really be a surprise when considering the make-up of our news consumption.

The final warning signal for me was the actuality that Wales voted to leave the EU – the very country that has benefited the most from being part of it.  Our agriculture, rural economies, tourism, education and business sectors have received considerable investment from Europe, especially less prosperous geographic areas. With England and Wales (albeit by a majority of no bigger than a crowd that fills the Principality Stadium on international day) voting to leave the EU, and Scotland along with Northern Ireland favouring remain, significant constitutional questions for the UK are emerging. Wales has to be careful that it does not simply become an annexe of England in time, possibly in a scenario where Scotland has renegotiated its relationship with the Union, and a new framework is settled and implemented for the island of Ireland.

So we live in tumultuous times with substantial uncertainties, but also opportunities. Wales and its politicians must be vigilant. It cannot be a case of ‘steady as she goes’ any longer. As a people we need to think long and hard about the future direction of the Union, planning for all eventualities.  I have not always been a fan of how successive Welsh governments have conducted themselves. Nor have I ever been an admirer of the Senedd’s quality of debates both in standard and substance.  The truth is that the Senedd has been hamstrung from the beginning, being devoid of the freedom to act with the effective powers granted the Scottish Parliament. However, those of us who believe in a stronger and more confident, self-governing Wales must advocate that vision more vociferously now than ever.

With the Brexit result, I am convinced that the future lies, at the very least, in a self-governing Wales within a Federal UK, but I also increasingly accept that a strong argument can be made for going even further. The reality of today is that 20 years of devolution has made little difference to Wales’s economic standing within the UK. Our country is near to bottom of the league on several socio-economic indicators.

Out of 235 countries in the world, some 130 of them have populations of around 7 million and under. Of these countries, 100 have fewer than 4 million people and the vast majority are smaller than Wales. Further, 11 of the countries of the 27 in the EU have populations of approximately 5 million or less. 7 of the 11 have fewer people than Wales.  In the modern financial, service and technological age, as opposed to the era of heavy industries and large scale manufacturing, the question of a country’s size is no longer a deciding factor in terms of deliberating governance models.

For decades, too many politicians have argued that Wales is either too small or cannot afford to go it alone, markedly because the country would run a significant budget deficit. But so does the UK, with a deficit of some £100 billion a year, carrying a debt of £1.83 trillion. Indeed, a proportion of the £14 billion claimed to be Wales’s presently projected deficit is our share of the money spent on large UK projects such as HS2 and defence (e.g. Trident). What more, revealingly, only about 50 of the world’s 235 nation-states actually run a budget surplus!

Therefore, is there now the political will to advance the national debate on the future of the UK Union?

Will the Labour party re-gather its forces for change and pursue the matter of a Constitutional Convention and a Federal UK? Or has the satisfaction of recently winning an additional 36 seats at Westminster, securing continued control over Wales and achieving a limited but important comeback in Scotland dampened their enthusiasm for reform? The SNP stance for Scotland is broadly clear, but what of Plaid Cymru’s vision for Wales in the next few years? The Brexit situation has already brought into sharp focus the vexed question of the long-term framework for the island of Ireland. Will the Conservatives ultimately accept that they may need to make a strategic comprise on the constitutional question to prevent more serious disunity? Then what of the Liberal Democrats, the party of ‘Home Rule’ with its antecedents stretching back a hundred years? Will they actually manage for once to discuss constitutional change at their conference? In the days of the SDP/Liberal Alliance of the 1980s it was forever on the agenda. I made certain of that.

It is time to move towards a real ‘Senedd’ for Wales…

Tuesday 3 October 2017

We need a Constitutional debate...

As some may be aware, the booklet: ‘Towards Federalism and Beyond’ was recently launched, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the vote to establish the Welsh Assembly. 

It shares views on the future of the UK Union generally and Wales’s status within it specifically. 

Subsequently, I was quoted in two Western Mail articles during the last week.  

The first titled: Click here to read article.

All in all, both pieces illustrate the widest possible breadth of constitutional parameters existing beyond devolution itself, requiring discussion of alternative models of governance for the UK—from federalism and beyond—through a much needed Constitutional debate...