Brexit threatens our Assembly’s future – but Dominion status could protect us
Labour for an Independent Wales’ first event earlier this month seems to have succeeded – at least in catching people’s attention and creating a debate.
One set of arguments presented at the event that created particular interest was the arguments of Lord Elystan Morgan, relating to the idea of Wales’ attaining Dominion status.
Much of the response has focused on questioning the significance of what to some appears an archaic notion.
But before addressing this issue, it is worth pausing to ask why Lord Morgan thinks such a step is required.
The answer, in short, is that devolution could be in jeopardy because of Brexit.
In annulling European Law, it will be the case that Welsh legislation will have to cohere with British law – it will become the final arbiter on Welsh legislation.
In crude terms, this transfer of legal authority will open the door to the Assembly and its laws being overridden by the ‘Mother’ parliament.
In view of the current climate, and the way in which the current British Government have pushed through a new ‘reserved’ powers model for Wales (with an incredible 197 reservations) the threat to the Assembly’s future must be addressed head-on.
One way of putting devolution on firmer ground, therefore, would be to establish Wales as a Dominion.
The knee-jerk response to the concept of a Dominion is that it smacks of the type of colonial worldview that Morgan himself has been so critical of in his critique of the recent Conservative approach to Wales.
However, what he has in mind is adapting an old concept to serve the purposes of today’s Wales. And it is able to do so because of its elasticity.
The key point, to begin with, is the Statute of Westminster in 1931 which ratified the legislative independence of the settler colonies such as Canada, New Zealand – and the Irish Free State.
The status of Dominion was extended to what were effectively sovereign states, that shared a monarch.
Whilst it is a concept that has to some extent slipped out of our political vocabulary, it was, it seems, crucial to debates in recent years between Spain and the UK with respect to Gibraltar.
It was a concept that could satisfy both the Spanish and British claims to the rock, whilst also maintaining the autonomy of the territory.
In this respect, it seems that reforming Wales as a Dominion would provide it with the legislative independence to protect and solidify the status of our soon-to-be parliament.
It would also provide significant scope in terms of the scale of autonomy that the people of Wales might wish to see develop.
One point serves to suggest the practical nature of what is in the balance here: it is Lord Morgan’s claim that to all intents and purposes the Scottish indyref was a referendum on Dominion status, for the intent was to maintain the same Monarch (and indeed the same currency).
Given the elasticity of the concept, how might a referendum on Dominion status proceed? One possibility is that such a vote could have two stages.
The first question would be a straight yes/no – ‘Should Wales adopt Dominion Status?’. The second question would ask, in the case of Dominion status being attained, what extent of autonomy it should encompass.
This second question would be multi-choice, and could offer, for example, three possibilities: maintaining the current settlement, devomax, or full independence.
The immediate response might be that this will be a rather complex vote. However, we need to ask ourselves whether a level of complexity is a reason not to give the Welsh people such a choice given that we are used to two-stage voting at Assembly elections, and more pertinently given the complexity of what we have already been asked to vote on.
The referendum in 2011 was actually relatively difficult to grasp in its complexity; what would mark out a referendum of this nature, of course, would be the enormity of the choice on offer.
It would have the advantage of offering options that many different constituencies in Wales could argue for.
Those who are sceptics could campaign against, knowing that maintaining the current arrangement could even allow the possibility they crave of rowing back on devolution in future.
It would allow those who are happy with the current deal but desiring more stability to choose a suitable option, whilst also providing the opportunity for Carwyn Jones amongst others to press for radical devolution, as well as giving pro-Indy campaigners a chance to put forward their vision.
What it doesn’t allow for, of course, is a vote on a Welsh Republic, but there are good reasons for believing that the question of monarchy –as with the EU- is an issue to be addressed subsequently.
Ultimately, a referendum of this nature would require a debate and educational process mirroring that of the indyref in Scotland.
Given that the stakes are so high in the context of Brexit Britain, and given the need for us to move our democracy forward, there may be much to recommend this prospect.
At the very least, we should be talking about it.