John Ball, former lecturer in economics at Swansea University
No doubt when the current crisis is past, there will be any amount of analysis, not least on how the crisis affected Wales, how it was managed by the political system and what lessons may – or may not – be learned. That’s for another day.
What the crisis has shown is that the present political system is unsustainable. The Welsh Government, unclear of its actual powers and consequently unable to act unilaterally, with the governing party indulging in political capital (whilst glancing furtively to party headquarters in London) and whatever the truth, Wales somewhere in the queue for support and equipment.
Enter Hefin David, ever keen to score political points with blatant disregard for the facts. In a recent tweet – ignoring the substantial failings of his party and government – he seeks solace in attacking the growing independence movement. Interesting then that he should choose the week when a damning report by the University of Southampton showed that it is the Welsh economy that will be hardest hit by the current crisis.
I’m not in favour of ‘independence’ because I think that splitting the world into ever smaller units is the opposite of what we need right now. I am in favour of a reformed United Kingdom with a codified constitution that separates powers, using the principle of subsidiarity.
— Dr Hefin David AS/MS 🏴 (@hef4caerphilly) April 18, 2020
Apparently he is not in favour of independence because (as he puts it) splitting the world into ever smaller units is the opposite of what we need right now. Really?
Evidence from around the world showed – in stark contrast to the UK – that small nations were alert to the danger and agile in response, using their political power to ensure the safety of their people. I leave the comparison with the UK to the readers.
He then suggests the way forward is a Codified Constitution which in practice means a federal system. As a democratic device to bring democracy and decision making closer to the people, federalism has some attraction. Whilst many powers might be embedded in the federal states, the reality is that substantial power is retained at the centre, and that can be used to change the relationship, invariably in favour of the centre – strikingly illustrated by the current crisis: confusion between governments giving contradictory advice, instructions and bumbling interference from the centre.
The UK would remain a unitary state and it, therefore, follows that even with substantial federal powers, the most important functions of government and levers of power will be retained by the centre: the Central Bank, fiscal and monetary policy, main sources of and rules on taxation, currency, the judiciary and any legislation interpreted as relevant to the UK as a whole. These powers would mean that the centre (London) would have an advantage over the states. The reality is the evidence of existing, grudging devolution clearly shows any serious attempt to establish a federal system will meet with resistance from the centre. The British political system is unshakeably centrist and will always remain so.
Federalism may have advantages, but there are a number of inter-connected and irreversible basic failings. The first is obvious; the centre ultimately remains the final decision maker, retains power and can amend or revoke powers previously devolved: look at the current crisis.
The second follows the first; the centre retains control over macroeconomic policy; taxation, currency, interest and exchange rates, without which no decentralised administration is truly in control. Thirdly, notwithstanding each federal state having much the same powers, there may well be competition between them for resources: look at the current crisis.
There is however an irrefutable and fundamental weakness behind the argument for a UK federal structure. Countries with a federal structure such as Australia, Canada and Germany are by definition single nations. The UK state is not: it is made up of three constituent nations with their own distinct cultures, social values and language, all of which would be of lesser importance in any form of federalism.
There is a further deficiency which is perhaps the most important, and potentially the most dangerous. A Codified Constitution is a written document that stipulates powers, responsibilities and relationship between the federated states and the centre; once that document is written it is unalterable. If changes are needed by one of the states – a response to a serious crisis such as the current pandemic or a serious economic downturn – the ability for individual states to respond would be virtually impossible.
Just think. Despite the questionable response of the Welsh Government to the current crisis, or indeed plans to stimulate the economy afterwards, federalism and a Codified Constitution would make any individual response impossible. Is that really the way forward?
No doubt as the Assembly elections draw nearer and questions will be asked about his party’s record in power and its attitude toward independence, a favoured smoke screen will be federalism. Don’t be misled!