Political accountability and popular sovereignty
Glyndwr Cennydd Jones
Within the model of a multinational unitary state, democracy across the constituent nations depends, to a particularly great extent, on their recognised right to act within a framework of defined constitutional powers.
Indeed, democratic principles find the best conditions for their realisation in this context.
The more centralised the unitary state is in its concept of parliamentary sovereignty, the less likely it is to be successful in acknowledging the partial autonomy and diversity of its various territories, as can be seen clearly in the ways in which Westminster often relates to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Wales, as an example, appears at the bottom, or near-bottom, of all UK poverty indices.
We talk intensively about levelling up across these isles and north-south relations, but few focus on the east-west dynamic.
Firstly, there is the Barnett formula which continues to seriously underfund the nation.
Through its application, the block grant allocated to Wales experienced a real reduction of 11.3% between financial years ending 2011 to 2019, with funds decreasing from £19.4 billion to £17.2 billion. This reduction far outshadows the 7.2% real cut for overall UK public spending in the period.
By year ending 2025 the Welsh Government’s budget will in effect be £3 billion lower than if it had grown in line with GDP since 2011. Ongoing inflation is likely to compound the situation to the tune of a further £1 billion depreciation over the next year.
Calls for a new transparent needs-based formula to replace that of Barnett are evidently justified.
Secondly, there is Brexit. Between 2014 and 2020, Wales received up to £2.1 billion through the European Regional Development and European Social Funds.
If circumstances had not changed, these sources would have been worth £1.4 billion between financial years ending 2021 and 2025. Regretfully, there is a present shortfall of £750 million on the figure, which could top £1 billion if rural support losses from EU structural funds are included.
Searching for solutions, the Welsh and Scottish Governments have pressed Westminster for greater flexibility in managing their budgets, involving the automatic ability to transfer late in-year block grant changes to the next financial period, and increases to limits on their borrowing and cash reserves.
Ongoing practices often lead to late adjustments to budget allocations due to funding changes driven by England’s needs, which are often out of step with planning cycles in Wales and Scotland.
For example, most Senedd funds are held within the UK Government Banking Service and the Treasury recently took back £155.5m from the Welsh Government’s balance because it exceeded the amount Westminster allows it to carry forward at the end of the financial year.
The matter of diverging national priorities is further entrenched by the UK Government’s classification of the HS2 high-speed rail project as an England and Wales project, despite no track being laid in Wales, resulting in no additional Barnett funds for the nation. The extra £5 billion which Wales should receive under a fair settlement could support a major infrastructure transformation to help alleviate the challenges faced.
So, in many respects, Wales is facing a perfect financial storm.
This uncertain economic climate is further exacerbated by the erosion of basic democratic principles within the nation, as the UK government increasingly reaches into devolved areas, for example through: the Internal Market Act; the European Union (Withdrawal) Act; the Elections Act; the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, and the ways in which both the levelling-up and shared prosperity funds are managed without regard to the Welsh Government’s financial responsibilities.
The UK Government does not have a mandate from the people of Wales to undermine the functions of the Senedd. The electorate has voted in favour of creating and extending the institution’s role through two referenda—the last time in 2011, when 63.4% supported greater devolution of powers.
Wales has consistently voted for pro-devolution parties. Parliaments are created to serve the people. In order to safeguard the democracy of the devolved nations, this principle must now be codified as a formal written constitution.
In such an arrangement, the people, as sovereign, establish the binding legal conditions under which their representatives are able to exercise the power entrusted to them. Only on this basis, and within the limits set by it, are individuals elected and appointed to positions of power.
The fathers of the American Constitution described this as the relationship between principal and agent, master and servant. In France, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès summarised it as the distinction between ‘pouvoir constituent’ and ‘pouvoir constitué’.
Put simply, the ‘constituent power’ rests entirely with the people. Popular sovereignty is realised through it. The restrictions created by the people through a written constitution, facilitated by periodic democratic elections, apply directly to those who serve to execute ‘constituted power’ for a time on their behalf.
In this context, the concept of Westminster parliamentary sovereignty is problematic, and possibly rests at the heart of the inconsistency and lack of accountability demonstrated by the UK Government over recent years.
The most important application of sovereignty lies in protecting the democratic will of a politically united society with regard to the order that best suits it—which in today’s UK is structured across four parliaments through the devolution arrangements, not Westminster solely.
Establishing a new written framework for these isles, with the support of these parliaments, could prove invaluable across the political spectrum, with some finding reassurance in attempting to articulate the more distinctive elements of the UK’s practices in a codified federal constitution, and with others seeking to cement the sovereignty position of the four nations individually in relation to a common confederal British structure.
Importantly, political participation and democracy function more effectively within a framework of territories, while it is increasingly diluted by remote central bodies, which can undermine the process of opinion formation and feedback sharing between elections to government from those governed.
In today’s world, nearly 200 states are underpinned by written constitutions. Surprisingly, the UK is not. The fact that written constitutions make the machinery of government more accessible and transparent to the electorate is one of the most persuasive arguments for their application.
We should move towards a more formal codified system of inter-governmental relations across these isles with popular sovereignty and political accountability rooted at its heart.
Glyndwr Cennydd Jones is an author and commentator on UK Constitutional issues and an advocate for a UK-wide Convention. His booklet A League-Union of the Isles is available here as an e-book and here as an easily printable pdf version.
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.