Status quo or independence aren’t the only options for Wales – a federal UK is possible
Jane Dodds, the Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats
The Coronavirus pandemic has thrown down some fundamental challenges to politicians about the future of our society, our economy, our healthcare system, and how we think about work.
Among those challenges, the pandemic has shown that we need fundamental political reform. The sight of MPs queueing around the Palace of Westminster to vote, when every other democratic Parliament – including our own here in Wales – functions remotely, has brought home the archaic nature of the Westminster system. To face the challenges of the post-coronavirus world, we have to do so much better.
For us in Wales, managing coronavirus has posed some important questions about the functioning of devolution. Health is devolved, and we have our own lockdown rules, with the Government clear decisions about the future of those rules will be taken in Wales. However, the key funding decisions are largely taken in London.
There have been mixed messages from London, where the UK Government at times appears to have barely acknowledged that Wales (or Scotland and Northern Ireland for that matter) have their own administrations and rules.
Despite the best efforts of the Welsh Government to deliver a clear message, many people in Wales get their news from the London-based media. As a result, many people in Wales, and in England, have sometimes been confused about the fact that the rules are different here.
So, it’s hardly surprising that the most recent ITV Wales/Wales Governance Centre Barometer poll shows a collapse in support for the Conservatives. However, it also showed growing dissatisfaction with our constitutional settlement here in Wales.
Liberal Democrats believe the relationship between Wales and Westminster has to be reset. We have long argued for the full implementation of the Silk Commission recommendations, including the devolution of criminal justice to Wales.
We have seen how difficulties can arise when an issue like Covid-19 cuts across the boundaries of the devolution settlement. The Welsh Government has responsibility for the lockdown, but without the means to fund decisions taken independently of Westminster. Indeed, according to the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University we’re facing a shortfall of up to £500m in central funding.
And this follows a pattern. We have seen how the current Conservative government has undermined the principle of devolution – from the failure to provide Barnett consequential on HS2 expenditure, to Boris Johnson’s apparent desire to take the replacement of EU funding out of our hands, to Welsh Government has been excluded from the trade negotiations with the EU.
Most recently, following votes in the UK Parliament, the future of Welsh agriculture is now deeply uncertain despite it being a devolved issue. With Welsh Conservative MPs voting with the UK Government, food hygiene and animal welfare standards are now up for grabs in a post-Brexit trade deal with the US.
We have even seen Conservative MPs in England taking to Twitter to argue that devolution should be abolished, all so their constituents can drive to Welsh beaches during lockdown. Disrespect for Wales and our devolved institutions appears increasingly endemic amongst the Conservatives.
Liberal Democrats want to defend and reset the devolution settlement, to ensure that the key decisions about our daily lives are taken by those elected to represent our communities.
We want to see a federal United Kingdom in which the rights of the devolved nations are not just maintained by conventions, that an English-dominated Westminster can overturn on a whim, but in binding and legally enforceable constitutional settlements.
But uniquely among the parties contesting next May’s Senedd elections, we believe in fundamental reform of Westminster too. We reject the belief Wales must choose between the status quo or independence. We are the only party that is prepared to stand up for constitutional change right across the UK.
Liberal Democrats have always believed that power should be devolved to the most local level practicable; that’s why we have long argued for a federal UK, with substantial devolution to the English regions too. We’ve always campaigned for fair votes, but also for an elected upper house and much stricter rules around political donations.
There is no doubt that Westminster is broken; but as a party, we are determined to fix it.
To meet the challenges of the post-Coronavirus world, we need properly-functioning political institutions in Cardiff Bay and in Westminster, and, critically, to reset the relationship between them. We need more democracy, more accountability, and Government that is closer to people, not more remote from them.
Only Liberal Democrats are committed to delivering that change.