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‘Devolution is dead and Wales is entering constitutional limbo’

17 Jul 2023 7 minute read
Westminster. Picture by Maurice (CC BY 2.0) The Senedd building. Holyrrod by Kim Traynor (CC BY-SA 3.0). Stormont by Robert Paul Young (CC BY 2.0).

Martin Shipton

The model of devolution that Wales has grown used to since 1999 is now dead, and we are now in a form of constitutional purgatory with no clear way forward, according to two leading Welsh academics.

In an article for The Political Quarterly, Professors Kevin Morgan and Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University argue that developments since Brexit have upended the devolution settlements for all three Celtic nations and sought to reimpose centralised power.

They state: “Following [Theresa] May’s replacement by Boris Johnson in July 2019, any pretence that the UK Government was interested in retaining cordial links with the devolved governments was rapidly abandoned. The whole tenor of the central government’s rhetoric became hostile, not only to the Labour and SNP run administrations in Wales and Scotland, but to the very existence of devolution.

“Decisions made by the central state were presented as being better, by definition, with centralisation and policy uniformity serving to ‘strengthen the Union’. Conversely, the policy differentiation that is the inevitable corollary of devolution was framed as an existential threat … Hostility to devolution remained a constant throughout Johnson’s premiership. If anything, this hostility intensified still further during successor Liz Truss’s brief, tumultuous period as Prime Minister.

“Her now infamous refusal to talk directly to the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales was symbolic of what appears to have been the complete breakdown of the formal mechanisms established to facilitate intergovernmental relations within the UK.

“The resumption of intergovernmental working that followed from her resignation has been a positive development. Yet, it remains too early to form a definitive view as to whether the Sunak administration will attempt to reset relationships with the devolved governments beyond this bare minimum. It is also the case that it doesn’t really matter. The damage, so to speak, has already been done.”

Centralisation

Morgan and Jones go on to analyse the implications of the centralisation imposed by the UK Government: the Internal Market Act has rolled back devolution, depriving the devolved administrations of the ability to decide for themselves which goods should be sold in the territories they control. They state: “The mutual recognition principle for goods means that goods made, or imported into, one part of the UK that comply with relevant legislative requirements in that part, can be sold in the other parts of the UK, without having to comply

with any relevant legislative requirements in those other parts. This principle in effect means that the devolved governments cannot regulate the supply of goods in the Celtic nations if they are deemed to comply with regulations in England, thereby neutering their policies in ostensibly devolved areas.”

The Act also gives the UK Government “wide powers to provide financial assistance to any person for, or in connection with, a wide range of specified purposes. These purposes include promoting economic development, providing infrastructure, supporting cultural activities and events, and supporting educational and training activities and exchanges.

The financial assistance powers extend to funding activities in policy areas devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It was under these financial powers that the UK Government launched the Community Renewal Fund, the Levelling Up Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF).”

These funds aimed at replacing EU regional aid undermined devolution by bypassing the devolved administrations and awarding money directly to local authorities. Morgan and Jones state: “One way of understanding the contested governance of the SPF is as a clash of two different models of devolution. The Welsh Government reference point is the national model of devolution as it has evolved since the establishment of the then National Assembly for Wales in 1999: a model of devolution which provides the devolved level with genuine policy autonomy, including the ability to allocate funding according to its own priorities.

“The UK Government reference point, by contrast, appears to be the subnational model of devolution that it has pioneered in England with the creation of city-regions overseen by metro mayors. In the latter case, policy autonomy is – certainly by comparison – limited, with the relationship between central and devolved government perhaps better understood as being akin to a principal-agent relationship.

“While the UK Government claims that dealing directly with local authorities in order to manage the SPF constitutes ‘an extension of the devolution process’, it might equally well be regarded as an attempt to replace the established national model of devolution with its preferred subnational model.

“Whatever way we characterise the nature of the dispute between central and devolved  governments, the contested governance of post-Brexit regional policy means that the woefully inadequate level of partnership working between the Welsh Government and the UK Government is having profoundly debilitating effects on regional renewal projects in some of the poorest areas of western Europe. While this constitutes a serious failure of economic development policy, it also threatens the political integrity of the UK as a multinational state.”

Hostility

Considering the hostility that has developed between Westminster and the devolved administrations, Morgan and Jones state: “Although untrammelled parliamentary sovereignty is clearly back in vogue, any UK Government seeking to abolish Scottish and Welsh devolved institutions would need to be willing to shoulder enormous, even catastrophic, risks. These are institutions that enjoy significant popular legitimacy and, indeed, have become key markers of national identity.

“A direct assault on their existence would surely generate a backlash, including extensive civil disobedience, such that it’s hard to imagine how any UK Government could restore stability to the governance of the devolved territories in the aftermath.

“Even a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach—a more subtle erosion of powers—is risky. In this case, not only because there is a real danger of precipitating an unintended crisis of the kind that would follow from a direct assault, but in addition, the Conservative Party (the only conceivable agent of such a policy) would likely find itself completely marginalised by the Scottish and Welsh electorates, thus further exacerbating centrifugal forces in the state. In short, devo-sceptics have undermined the credibility of the previous model of devolution without any viable alternative to set in its place.

“But, by the same token, neither is it obvious that devolutionists have a politically viable alternative of their own. The Brown Commission [chaired by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, which recommended reform of the House of Lords] version of entrenchment would involve fundamental institutional reform of Westminster, including the introduction of potentially far-reaching constraints on the power of the House of Commons.

“Even if they were achievable, it is far from clear that these reforms would provide much by way of protection against a Westminster government that had decided (wisely or not) to bring the devolved institutions to heel.

“Meanwhile, producing a written or codified constitution would represent nothing less than a constitutional revolution, at least as far as English tradition is concerned. The resulting upheaval would literally have no precedent in the modern history of the state. Given that England is home to around 85% of the state’s population, even basic considerations of realpolitik must render such a development highly unlikely.

“Given this impasse, some readers may be tempted to regard independence as a possible, even inevitable, way forward. But we should be wary of such ‘constitutional determinism’. Even before the apparent implosion of the SNP, there were many reasons to doubt the existence of a viable route to Scottish, let alone Welsh, independence.

“Thus, even as Brexit has heralded the death of the previous model of devolution, it seems likely that it will be succeeded by an extended period of constitutional purgatory – a period in which this model of devolution persists, not because it has any real supporters, not because it has any continuing vitality, but simply because no alternative is possible.

“Whatever its supposed benefits, in terms of its impact on the UK territorial constitution, it is thus hard to consider the impact of Brexit as being anything other than entirely negative.”


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Cathy Jones
Cathy Jones
8 months ago

I’ve said this before many times: Westminster is against the Senedd.

We must stand up to attacks on our government, The Senedd is our only protection from the horrors that Westminster wishes to inflict upon the people.

England has become a place of defeated faces, slumped shoulders, angry and scared children, adults devoid of hope and only rampant corporate avarice prospers there at the expense of all joy and freedoms.

Steve A Duggan
Steve A Duggan
8 months ago

The article states devoluion is dead and independence is not considered a viable option too – so what other options are there? Nothing. Westminster will continue to chip away at devolution even with a future Labour government. We have to be brave to stop this destruction of our country’s parliament and democracy. Independence is the only way forward, it is the only thing left.

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve A Duggan

I don’t think the report is saying that independence is unviable, just that there is no clear way of achieving it. Though the report seems couched in neutral terms, it could also be seen as a kind of ‘call to arms’ to those parties who have the best interests of our small country as a core part of what they do. Devolution is, and was always about power retained by Westminster, and was always a sop to separatist sentiment, as was the Welsh Office before that. Let’s not forget that for a considerable period during the 20th century the Labour… Read more »

Dai Ponty
Dai Ponty
8 months ago

Devolution for Wales is just a glorified county council and there is no difference between Tory and Labour governments in the Foreign country over the border what Wales is total freedom from London A TOTAL INDEPENDENT COUNTRY

Neil Anderson
Neil Anderson
8 months ago

I would not dispute the authors’ conclusion, but query whether the Conservative Party is the only conceivable agent of an erosion of powers. The UK Labour Party (as distinct from the Welsh Labour Party and especially the growing IndyLabour movement) under Starmer appears, at most, indifferent to devolution and certainly to its expansion. What the authors do well is distinguish two versions of devolution – that which we know and have come to accept to varying degrees in Cymru and the version now emanating within Westminster (which, as I suggest above, will be maintained by a Starmer government).  Devolution has come… Read more »

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
8 months ago
Reply to  Neil Anderson

Wise words. It seems to me that whatever way forward for any Westminster government is fraught with dangers. The status quo clearly isn’t sustainable, and neither would be substitution to a subnational approach. Even the direct interventions such as administration of the SPF and Westminster dealing directly with local authorities in Wales is going to be seen for what it is, an attempt to sideline the Senedd. This might be popular with a few trolls who inhabit the WalesOnline comments, but there will be a significant number who will be unhappy about this. It’s not for nothing that there was… Read more »

L'écureuil
L'écureuil
8 months ago

We have no legitimate and justifiable connection with the rest of the union, apart from the geographical one. Declare independence as a republic. Do our own thing for crying out loud. There’s no reason for us to be in this irrelevant imperial establishment. Once we leave, things will look on the up and we will have no regret, no matter what the imperialists say.

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
8 months ago
Reply to  L'écureuil

Quite apart from anything else, only around a third of the population clearly supports independence. There is also no widespread support for independence amongst Senedd politicians, let alone in the government.

There is also the consideration that for most things Wales is completely integrated into the wider UK and is dependent on Westminster for all government funding, whether that is central Westminster or at Senedd level.

I’m not saying that independence is a bad idea, far from it, but a simple declaration of UDI just wouldn’t work and would cause huge amounts of damage to the people of Wales.

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
8 months ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

We will need to prepare our country for independence, because from day one we will control our own frontiers and economy, we will need an up and running taxation and procurement system, our own currency, stock exchange, company laws, Law and justice systems, broadcasting and media.

We need to start to prepare to take these tasks on from day one of freedom.

We need start preparing and developing these institutions and the best time is:
RIGHT NOW !

Is the government of Wales up to this all important task ?
If it isn’t, then we need a government that is.

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
8 months ago

I don’t disagree, but the question is how could this be achieved prior to independence being achieved? Much of that you suggest is ‘reserved’ i.e. a function of central Westminster government. As we already know, any attempt by the Senedd to overreach, i.e. take on roles reserved for Westminster would be crushed. Crucially, taxation is largely a reserved power, and without the ability to raise substantial taxes, any attempt to frame policies and actions is futile. And yes, there would need to be a Welsh government prepared to stand up to Westminster, but so far no Senedd government has been… Read more »

Evan Aled Bayton
Evan Aled Bayton
8 months ago

It is the malignant crow’s foot of the Treasury which controls everything. Democracy in this country is an illusion. The Civil Service controls everything and has now taken to objecting to ministers. The Civil Service is controlled by the Treasury as the Communist Party of China which it resembles is controlled by the central cadre. Even the Chartists didn’t conceive of this.

Nia James
Nia James
8 months ago

Current talk at Westminster is about regional devolution across England, once Labour wins the UK General Election. Manchester or Sheffield will be deemed more important than Wales. We will be even further down the pecking order than we are at this point in time. There really is only one solution.

Gwyn Hopkins
8 months ago

Union with England was imposed on Wales by violence and certainly without the consent of its people – they weren’t even consulted. The current population is denied any legal pathway for leaving the Union. This position is tantamount to being in a shotgun marriage with divorce outlawed. This absolutely outrageous situation is because 82% of MPs (the English ones) have a profound, inherited, colonialist attitude towards Wales and are generally hostile to devolution. This does not auger well for those of us who favour independence or more devolution for Wales (or Scotland).      

Richardo
Richardo
8 months ago

“We built a devolved sandcastle and then a surprise tide came in and washed its walls away”

But not complete failure for the Welsh political & administrative class (and it’s academia footmen) its always a rewarding day at the beach regardless of tide and weather.

Look on the bright side, that’s what “our” devolution, bent or buffeted, was for. Ongoing.

Dr John Ball
Dr John Ball
8 months ago

Independence is not an option?
I don’t mind the debate but I would have thought that these two supposedly thinking individuals would at least had the courtesy to respect the views of others instead of this negative throwaway.

Crwtyddol
Crwtyddol
8 months ago

This attitude rather than kill devolution will more likely incite rebellion. This will be a positive for indy supporters as central government will lose credibility.

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
8 months ago
Reply to  Crwtyddol

I think you’re one of the few here who has realised this.

Alun Gerrard
Alun Gerrard
8 months ago

I think that the input from the London government would be deemed as interference. I also think that the WG cabinet do not talk enough with the London government and with Scotland and NI. Drakeford admits that he did not like Boris…Does he ever talk to Rushdi ? I hope that the Welsh political parties talk to their leaders in London ie Labour and Conservative?

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
8 months ago
Reply to  Alun Gerrard

The UK is finished.
They had their chance to offer a federal system with equal rights for all nations and regions but they blow it in favour of centralisation.

We must NEVER trust the UK government.
They look on us the same way as the current Russian government treats the Ukraine.

That is because they are from the same political ideology: Imperialism.

We must all free our nations from imperialism.

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
8 months ago

In my opinion the Senedd is already ruled by Westminster. Both Labour and the tories in the Senedd follow their respective Westminster party lines while the calibre of politician both here and Westminster is pretty poor. The proof is that none of our devolved powers are working for Welsh people, from housing to transport to health to education they are all failing. All this while our wealth is being extracted to Westminster. We are being ripped off and our Welsh politicians do nothing.
We need a dynamic and independent party of Wales to take us forward to an independent Wales.

Wrexhamian
Wrexhamian
8 months ago

The Tories are likely to go for chipping away rather than a full-scale offensive. Each time there will be unsuccessful protests by the Senedd, then it’ll be done again over another issue until the Tories are voted out of office. UK Labour will have little incentive to repair the damage, unless there was a tangible “risk” that they might lose seats to Plaid Cymru and therefore fail to capture Westminster. Wales cannot win this one unless it can develop its economy sufficiently to manage without Barnet money, at which point it can walk away. I’m not optimistic, especially now that… Read more »

Last edited 8 months ago by Wrexhamian
Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
8 months ago
Reply to  Wrexhamian

The only way to free ourselves from relying on ‘Barnet’ money (and its controlling strings) is by creating our own taxation system and not pay any money towards the UK.

Swansea Mike
Swansea Mike
8 months ago

After 25 years since devolution I am deeply disappointed with the way Wales has progressed. Compared to Ireland, Wales is heading to the stone age. In the last 25 years, Ireland has built decent motorways across most of the country, re-opened rail routes in Dublin and outside Dublin, expanded the agricultural food businesses, brought in high tech businesses across the whole country, built better health services across Ireland not just in the key cities. The contrast with Wales is staggering. A key difference is that they have a trilingual approach. Children learn English, Irish and a foreign language. The key… Read more »

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