Westminster must recognise that there are four countries in the UK, not just their own

Dafydd Wigley. Picture by Plaid Cymru.

Lord Dafydd Wigley

It is 19 years to the day since the people of Wales voted for the first time to elect their newly established national parliament – the National Assembly.

It is 19 years since we regained some control over our own domestic affairs.

Since that day our parliament has been strengthened, its responsibilities widened and its competence expanded.

We now have a parliament (in all but name) that is able to legislate freely in all matters not reserved to Westminster.

However, the EU Withdrawal Bill has raised fundamental difficulties.

The powers being returned from Brussels to the UK include ones which impact directly on the National Assembly’s devolved responsibilities.

The clearest-cut of these is Agriculture, which, since devolution has been the prime responsibility of the National Assembly, and rightly so since the nature of Welsh agriculture is so very different to that of England.

Westminster is now insisting on intercepting the powers being repatriated from Brussels in relation to Agriculture, all for itself.

Likewise in other key areas, such as the environment; powers to intervene to help create or sustain industry; and powers to develop procurement policies which can help local businesses – as has been effectively developed by the National Assembly in recent years.

Plaid Cymru believes that Westminster grabbing these returning powers for itself will undermine the ability of the Welsh Government to do its job effectively in such matters.

This view was shared by the Labour Party – until last week.

Capitulation

Our position on the way Labour has ceded these powers is well known and does not need repeating.

What does need airing, however, is what the events of the past few weeks – not necessarily the Labour Party’s capitulation to the Tories but how these negotiations and discussions have exposed a deeper flaw within our democracy and constitution.

There have been calls from all sides for greater mutual respect between our respective governments – for a mutuality that isn’t reflected by one side having a veto, but other partners being denied that facility.

The difficulties, repeated time after time by those involved in the negotiations is that there is a basic lack of trust between Westminster and the national parliaments.

Not so much a personal lack of trust but rather a lack of trust in the respective institutions.

Part of that lack of trust in Wales arises out of different social values – part out of historic experience.

There has been a growing lack of trust in Wales during my lifetime, emanating from issues such as the drowning of Capel Celyn in the sixties, the S4C debacle of the 1980s and more recently over the Barnett formula.

Devolution was meant to help avoid at least some such difficulties but, ‘power devolved is power retained’ – a truism of which we have become acutely aware with these recent experiences.

The underlying issues, which recent difficulties in the context of Brexit have highlighted, are not going to go away. They will continue to plague us until a proper constitutional settlement is reached.

Constraining devolution

In the wake of the UK’s exit from the European Union, the sort of problems that will arise, and will strain our constitutional settlement – perhaps to breaking point – include issues such as:

  • the establishment of a viable funding policy for agriculture, to replace the EU’s funding programmes
  • state aid for threatened industries like steel
  • the opening up of our public services to private interests through future trade deals.

The Welsh family farm – rearing sheep and livestock – is a useful example of the different perspectives of Westminster and Wales.

Westminster sees it in terms of consumer need whereas our own government sees it as the cornerstone of our rural economy, of local communities and of their attendant culture.

If these recent events are in any way indicative of future intergovernmental relations, I do not see such considerations being addressed.

If Westminster insists on having a veto over such policies, Westminster will be seen as the constraint on devolved ambitions. There either has to be give-and-take, or the whole edifice will crumble under the strain of its own self-inflicted tensions.

The reality is that Westminster is trying to constrain the needs of a quasi-federal state within the straight jacket of a unitary state, and it just doesn’t work – four into one won’t go.

The constitution is unfit for purpose. Westminster must recognise that there are four countries in the UK, not just their own.

Partnership

As the wheels of Brexit re-orientate so many aspects of life in these islands, it is time for a new beginning – a new mutual respect between the peoples of our four nations, and the time is now.

Sitting in the Palace of Westminster, listening to these constitutional arguments about our hard-won democratic rights, I pondered on what our history might have been had there been a federal solution a century ago; but this was never possible because Westminster always wanted to have the whip hand.

We should now be returning to that agenda. We should be seeking to build a new partnership between the countries of these islands to cope with the new world into which Brexit places us.

There needs to be a new order – one based on mutual understanding, mutual tolerance and mutual respect. Only then will we get lasting settlement of these most difficult issues.

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