Constitution Commission findings point to independence as logical outcome
The report of Independent Commission on the Constitution confirms what has become increasingly evident over the past five years, that independence is now a mainstream part of the debate on our country’s future.
Consider the position in Wales at the time Adam Price took over Plaid Cymru’s leadership in September 2018, a little over five years ago. Until then even Plaid had relegated independence to the back-burner of political discussion. Instead, Price put independence at the front and centre of his leadership campaign. And once installed as leader he still had to convince his party that independence should be a priority.
That took the best part of two years, culminating in Plaid approving the report of its own Constitution Commission in early 2021, Towards an Independent Wales (Y Lolfa, 2020). Now, just three years later, the main thrust of that report has been taken on board by the cross-party Independent Commission on the Constitution.
There is no precedent for such a fundamental shift being achieved in the terms of Wales’s constitutional debate over so short a period.
Undoubtedly external factors played a role, including Brexit, the Covid pandemic, the impact of Yes Cymru, and the Co-operation Agreement between Plaid and Labour that emerged from the 2021 Senedd election. However, without the early impetus that was given by Price’s leadership, there is little likelihood that independence for Wales would have achieved such salience.
The Independent Commission on the Constitution puts forward three options for Wales’s constitutional future:
• Enhanced Devolution
• Wales in a federal UK
The Commission makes no recommendation on which option would be best for Wales. Instead, it sets out an elaborate list of criteria against which each option should be evaluated. All of these entail risks, which it says it is not qualified to assess:”…choosing between the criteria and evaluating risk is a choice to be made by citizens and their elected representatives” (p. 112).
It is a fair question that if an expert group such as the Commission feels unable to reach a judgement, after deliberating for more than two years at a cost of some £1.5m, then who could reasonably be expected to do so?
However, a close reading of the Commission’s report reveals pretty clear pointers to the direction of travel it would adopt if it was pressed. In the first place, there is no doubt that it would rule out the federal option. This is made clear at many points in the text. For example, in its chapter on public attitudes it finds that it was:”…the least attractive option for citizens across all the strands of our engagement. For many it was seen as neither one thing nor another, and too complicated and expensive. The structure of the UK was often seen as a barrier, particularly the risk of domination by England due to its population size in relation to the other nations” (p. 80).
A few pages later it judges:”… A federal UK would require a four nations perspective, and all nations to change their relationship with each other. Achieving this requires people across the UK to develop a different conception of what the Union is, and their nation’s place within it. At present, public opinion is not heading in that direction…”
And:”…. research indicates that citizens are not enthusiastic about the changes to English governance that would be required to establish a federal UK. This research found low levels of support for the idea of England being governed by an English Parliament, and even lower levels of support for regional governance arrangements” (p. 84).
All these arguments mirror those made to the Commission by Plaid Cymru in its evidence The Road to Independence (Y Lolfa, 2022).
In its summary of its public consultations the Commission judges that: Most people in Wales support devolution and would favour greater autonomy, in some form (p. 112). And in its overall conclusions it says that the choice of options, essentially between enhancing devolution or independence, depends on whether people’s priorities are either:
a. To achieve greater control by the people of Wales over the widest range of policy areas and the opportunity to shape our future as a nation and change the current economic trajectory – and to accept the risk that this may leave people in Wales financially worse off in at least the short and medium term.
b. To pursue a lower-risk strategy, based on whatever reforms of the current settlement can realistically be achieved, and grounded on the idea of solidarity with the rest of the UK’s population. This is less disruptive but risks no improvement in Wales’s relative economic prospects (p. 124).
In terms of the Commission’s options, the first implies independence, and the second enhanced devolution. The Commission says that, as things stand at present, most people in Wales would tend towards the “lower risk strategy”. If this is, indeed, the Commission’s own, unspoken view, then one is driven to ask to what extent can its proposed reforms to the current settlement, necessary to achieve enhanced devolution be, as it puts it, “realistically achieved”.
This is an urgent question, since early in its report the Commission finds there is a pressing need to protect the present devolution settlement.
The current Westminster government has proved hostile to the devolved administrations. Largely due to Brexit and its consequences, especially the imposition of a UK single market, Westminster has constantly intruded on the devolved administrations’ powers, undermining previous conventions. Moreover, and more insidiously, the UK Treasury is constantly finding ways to restrict budgets and financial discretion, treating the devolved governments as, in effect, Whitehall departments.
In short, the Commission comes to the chilling conclusion that: without urgent action there will be no viable settlement to protect (p. 44). So, what does it propose should be done? In the first place the Senedd’s powers should be extended over a wide range of areas, with the following heading the queue:
• Justice and policing and the consequent creation of a distinct Welsh jurisdiction (notably the Conservative member of the Commission, Lauren McEvatt, a former Special Adviser at the Wales Office, resiled from this recommendation “on the basis of her party’s strong commitment to maintaining the single jurisdiction of England and Wales” (p.67).
• Transport, and especially the Welsh rail network.
• The Crown Estate – management of which has been legislated for in Scotland, creating “a new precedent, which should apply to Wales” (p. 67).
• Broadcasting – The Welsh and UK Governments should agree a mechanism for a stronger voice for Wales on broadcasting policy…” (p. 71).
The Commission says that, in addition, there are three further requirements to ensure the present settlement is placed “on a long-term viable footing”:
1. A fundamental review of territorial funding in relation to need across the UK, agreed by the four governments of the UK.
2. The UK government pursues a reform of the Westminster Parliament’s second chamber which guarantees a formal voice for the nations and regions of the UK and their devolved institutions.
3. A regular process for reviewing and updating the reservations in Section 7A of the Government of Wales Act to remove reservations which lack a strategic rationale (through primary legislation or Ministerial Order as appropriate), agreed by the Welsh Government and the UK government (p. 94-5).
How likely is it that a Westminster Government, of whatever hue, would be at all willing to satisfy these criteria? This is a question that the Commission leaves hanging in the air.
We know from experience that less than short change will be produced by the Conservatives. As for Labour, the direction of travel for all Keir Starmer’s policy commitments is to row back. And he has made no firm commitments at all on the constitution.
The Constitution Commission makes clear that the priorities for Wales are, first to protect the current devolution settlement, and second to empower the Welsh Government so it has a better chance to tackle Wales’s endemic economic problems. Its proposals for protecting and enhancing devolution would be welcome if they had a realistic chance of being enacted at Westminster. But do they?
As for the economy it was Plaid’s own Independence Commission that demonstrated that Wales has failed to make economic progress, not because the country is too small or too poor, but because it is trapped within an economy overwhelmingly shaped in the interests of the City of London.
Wales’s average standard of living, or GDP per capita, has hovered very consistently at around 70 per cent of the average UK level since the beginning of the National Assembly, now Senedd, 25 years ago. No expert analysis of any sort thinks this is likely to change in any foreseeable future inside the UK. Against this, it is simply a matter of economic fact that independent states who joined the EU – Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece, and more recently countries in central Europe, have seen very considerable economic convergence with EU averages – in a manner which has not happened in the UK.
So, in short, the flawed UK economic model has failed to deliver prosperity for Wales and offers no prospect of doing so in the future. On the other hand, an independent Wales would be free to govern in its own interests. It would no longer be subordinated to the interests of London and the south east of England or be subject to the fiscal policies determined by the UK Government. There is little doubt, as well, that an independent Wales would seek membership of the EU as soon as was feasible.
A close reading of the Constitution Commission’s report shows that, if only it had allowed itself the freedom to express its own view, it would have come to the same conclusion.
John Osmond was Special Adviser to Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price between 2018 and 2022.
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