Gordon Brown’s report on the future of the UK doesn’t have much to say about Wales
Ifan Morgan Jones
Gordon Brown’s much-heralded Commission on the UK’s Future has been published this morning – so what’s in there about Wales?
The answer – having read through its almost 150 pages – is ‘not much’. As the choice of the former MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath as its author suggests, this report is mostly about Scotland.
For example, the dedicated section on Scotland runs to 11 pages, while the section on Wales is only two pages long.
There may be a good reason for this however as the report largely defers to the as yet incomplete Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales set up by the Welsh Government itself.
“In Wales, our proposals strengthen self-government for a new era, but we are mindful that the Welsh Government has set up an independent Commission to make recommendations on constitutional issues,” it says.
“We know that we can rely on the Welsh Labour Government to publish its Plan for Wales that employs to the full the powers of the Senedd and, at the same time, maximises the benefits from co-operation across the United Kingdom.”
This leaves Gordon Brown’s own report without much to do beyond hint rather vaguely towards a beefed-up role for the Welsh parliament and government.
The report promises “a new voice and new status, and new powers, for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as valued parts of the United Kingdom”.
“There is no constitutional reason why matters which are devolved in Scotland, including the new powers we propose above, could not also be devolved in Wales,” it says.
Even so, those keen on further Welsh devolution may be slightly disappointed by the lack of ambition for further devolved powers expressed here. There is no jackpot of new devolved powers waiting at the end of the Labour electoral rainbow.
- Welsh devolution should be constitutionally protected from meddling by the UK Government by giving a new Senate of the Nations and Regions – replacing the House of Lords – a role in protecting it.
- New powers should be made available to the Senedd and Welsh Governments, including embarking upon new powers over youth justice and the probation service.
- The Welsh Senedd’s members should, if desired, enjoy the same privileges and protections as Members of Parliament in relation to statements made in their proceedings.
- Enhanced access to economic resources for Wales: the British Regional Investment Bank should maximise support for innovation and investment in Wales, in conjunction with the Welsh Development Bank and the European Investment Bank.
It’s worth remembering that these are just promises that will go out to consultation before being included in a Labour manifesto, and may even then not be implemented.
Abolishment or significant reform of the House of Lords has itself been promised by Liberals and later Labour going back to the mid-19th century, and has not yet happened.
It’s also not entirely clear how the new Senate of the Nations and Regions would work. Presumably, the English regions would still outnumber the Celtic nations and therefore be able to overrule them on devolved matters just as the House of Commons can currently do.
The proposals to embark upon new powers over youth justice and the probation service also fall short of the wholesale devolution of the justice system that some in Wales had hoped for.
Even the Mayor of Manchester has devolved powers over policing, for example, but that’s not on offer to Wales here.
It’s hard to tell however whether this does represent a scaling back some of Welsh Labour’s ambitions for devolution or whether UK Labour are just committing to as little as possible to be on the safe side.
On the whole, despite having been ostensibly written by Gordon Brown the report as a whole is a bit of a vague mish-mash, giving the impression of having been written by a committee, perhaps lending credence to suggestions that there was a great deal of disagreement within UK Labour’s leadership about its contents.
Quite far-reaching and historically significant ideas like a Council of England are mentioned in passing, but there’s no real detail.
Perhaps therefore in the case of Wales, the report should be interpreted as a snack to await the main course of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales.
It is more of a nod towards a direction of travel which is very much at odds with the ‘muscular unionist’ approach of the current Conservative government.
The report says that “the UK is more centralised than any comparable country” and that those in the Celtic nations and English regions have been “morally and politically abandoned by the present UK government and the desperation for greater agency”.
“This over-centralisation of power poisons almost every aspect of our political system,” it says, adding: “Our recommendations aim to strengthen both the independence of Scotland and Wales within the UK, and their interdependence with the rest of the UK, balancing autonomy and solidarity in the best interests of their people.”
It is worth noting of course that even Boris Johnson admitted that the UK was “more unbalanced than any other major country” and promised to tackle it through his levelling up agenda.
For Labour, it may be easy to promise to give power away from the centre in opposition. It could be harder to do when they are sat at the levers of power themselves.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.