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‘England can learn from Welsh devolution’, say academics

08 Feb 2021 3 minute read
Picture by on the left by the Senedd (CC BY 2.0). Westminster by Stevebidmead.

England could learn from Welsh devolution, according to two academics.

Professor Richard Wyn Jones and Dr Jac Larner from Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, “examine the lessons that progressives outside Wales” in the New European.

In a co-written article, they argue that the ability of the Senedd to “block disastrous initiatives” pursued by UK government in England, such as PFI, the “evisceration of local government” and “marketisation” in areas where it is “inappropriate” has been “significant”.

They also said that the experience in Wales proves that “legitimacy can be built” even though “devolved institutions had an inauspicious start.”

In the article, they said: “So-called losers’ consent for the result was earned in relatively short order. In fact, when presented with a list of options in surveys, a plurality of the Welsh electorate is consistently found to be in favour of more powers for the Senedd.

“Earned is important here. The politicians who had worked together to secure the referendum victory – a cross-party coalition consisting of parts of Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru and Welsh Liberal Democrats – were deeply conscious of the fragility of the mandate they had won and worked assiduously to buttress it.

“Not least by seeking to build Wales’ devolved institutions on a new, genuinely inclusive basis.

“Hence using the opportunity of devolution to improve on the country’s previously shamefully low levels of female representation; the stress on transparency; building a post-devolution political process far more accessible than that which preceded it; a more proportional electoral system.

“It is hard to see how the conditions that made that Welsh journey possible can be replicated on any regional basis within England, because of the extent to which support for devolution in Wales was based on – and then built out from – the existence of a strong sense of Welsh national identity.”

‘Substantial changes’ 

They added: “The original model of executive devolution was so hopelessly inadequate that there have been multiple substantial changes in the constitutional settlement.

This perhaps helps to explain why, in policy terms, the story of Welsh devolution so far is – whisper is quietly – pretty unimpressive.

“More significant, in truth, has been the ability of devolved institutions to block disastrous initiatives being pursued by successive UK governments in England, such as PFI, the evisceration of local government, and marketisation even in settings where this is manifestly inappropriate.

“The real lesson here is that piecemeal, incoherent efforts to decentralise power that ignore basic constitutional principles – that is, overwhelmingly the kind of ‘devolution’ we have seen in England over the past two decades – leads largely to an essentially defensive approach to policymaking and beyond that, frustration and stasis.

“Given that Wales has a stable centre-left majority in its devolved parliament and has been governed by the centre-left since 1999, one of the more puzzling features of this period is why progressive think tanks and other policy entrepreneurs have not made more of an effort to persuade Wales to act as a test bed for progressive policy ideas.

“There are almost certainly contingent explanations for some of this. In the early years, the difficulties of doing anything constructive within the confines of the first round of devolution could well have acted as a disincentive.

“It probably hasn’t helped either that the major expansion in powers and competences at the Welsh level has coincided with austerity, with less money available to fund such developments. Or perhaps Wales just isn’t seen as being significant enough?”

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