Building a land of citizens
Adam Price – MS for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr
It may not be immediately apparent, but history will mark the final report of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Commission published later this week as a milestone moment.
As the interim report said, Wales is a land of commissions. This is the seventh related to devolution since 1999 (after Richard, Silk 1 and 2, Holtham 1 and 2, and Thomas) – and the eighth if you include the Expert Panel on Senedd Reform previously chaired by Laura McAllister.
Based on past experience Commission reports matter. Their recommendations eventually become reality for the most part – though the time this takes can range from a few years to over twenty (as in the case of Senedd expansion). The way that Commissions are designed to work – consensual, bipartisan, evidence-based – means they are able to reframe the constitutional debate around a new centre of gravity.
They generate momentum across party divides and beyond party in civil society which propels us forward to the next stage in our nation’s democracy. Commissions can also accelerate the speed of implementation of previous Commission calls sometimes simply by reiterating them. So what the report will say matters. It will be the best guidebook we have to what’s likely to happen next in the constitutional development of our country.
So, what can we reasonably expected in the final report? One thing the Commission has already pretty much ruled out is choosing between the three main constitutional futures: more devolution, federalism, independence. That decision it will no doubt say is a matter for the people of Wales. The interim report did say that all three options, including independence, were viable. Coming from a cross-party commission, that itself was a significant moment, symbolising independence’s coming-of-age as a plausible, sensible, mainstream position.
The Commission has set out twelve criteria it will use in its final assessment of the three options. If it concludes that independence has advantages over the other two options in certain areas e.g. appropriate economic policies, joined up government and constitutional stability, that will be a big win for the independence cause.
Given the Commission’s overall membership, I expect further devolution will probably score higher in other areas like public finances. But it will also be significant if the Commission concedes that the scale of the fiscal deficit of an independent Wales may be lower than some previous estimates, and accepts it will depend in part upon negotiation around matters like pensions and debt. This formed a key part of Plaid Cymru’s evidence.
It might be expected that federalism, as a Goldilocks option which splits the difference between independence and devolution, would score well. I suspect, however, given the lack of appetite for federalism in the three other nations, that this option will be judged the weaker of the three. Radical Federalism – which even Keir Starmer was touting as leadership candidate in Cardiff four years ago – may be about to be given a quiet funeral.
What the Commission recommends in the short-term will inevitably be the focus for many given the imminence of a Westminster General Election. Of the seven areas for further devolution the Commission is examining, then any calls for further devolution which go beyond the offer of the Labour Party’s Brown Commission – youth justice and probation – would be significant and ramp up the pressure on an incoming Labour Government to include them in their manifesto and, in Government, in a new Wales Act. Broadcasting, energy (including the Crown Estate), railways and criminal justice (maybe adding policing to the Brown Commission’s first-phase suggestion) are the most likely to be on the Commissions’ list of key demands.
There are also likely to be some proposals on how to make devolution work better: providing more protection against ‘power grabs’, giving more financial freedom to the Welsh Government, probably a Senate of the Nations and Regions and, almost certainly, a review of the Barnett Formula. The Commission’s considerable intellectual firepower will be useful in preventing these reforms languishing in the long grass of a theoretical Labour second term.
Beyond this I hope that the Commission will have something to say on democracy more generally. We are facing the same combination of low trust, low turnout and voter disengagement that threaten the future of democracy worldwide. But in Wales there is the additional challenge of the chronically low level of understanding of where power and responsibility lies. If we are serious about strengthening our fragile Welsh democracy, then we need to go beyond a temporary Commission – or even a series of them.
Both Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party in their 2021 manifestos promised to do set up more permanent bodies. My own party promised a National Commission that, among other things, would organise Citizens Assemblies. Labour promised an independent standing Commission.
A recommendation that some independent body be given an ongoing responsibility for democratic innovation, including new models of public participation like citizen assemblies, and democratic health, including civic education, would be perhaps the most impactful of all over the longer term. That would turn this Land of Commissions into a Land of Citizens. What a powerful legacy that could prove to be.
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