What’s the point of the Secretary of State for Wales?
After the inevitable, expected but still devastating news that the UK Government is to refuse to fund the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, I can’t imagine I am the only person asking: ‘What is the point of Alun Cairns?’
Not only as an elected representative but as a voice for Wales around the cabinet table.
His only major ‘success’ in his time as Welsh Secretary has been the renaming of a bridge, which itself required a secret ceremony as it was done in the teeth of widespread public opposition.
His failure to fight Wales’ corner has re-ignited a debate about the role of the Secretary of State for Wales.
It begs us to ask whether, after devolution, the role even needs to exist?
Alun Cairns is not the first person who has inspired us to look at whether the role of Welsh Secretary is still necessary and this is not the first time the existence of the role’s relevance has been debated.
Ieuan Wyn Jones and Dafydd Ellis Thomas called for its abolition in 2011 following the extra powers referendum.
Lord John Morris, himself a former Secretary of State, argued for its abolition 5 years ago. He stated:
The fifth wheel on the parliamentary coach is the existence of the Secretary of State in Scotland and Wales. There are two junior ministers in the Wales Office, one in the House of Commons and one brand new one for the first time ever in the House of Lords.
What on earth they do on a day-to-day basis, goodness only knows. They have few duties following the advent of devolution, and even fewer after the transfer of legislative powers to the Assembly.
From my experience as the holder of the office for over five years, it is impossible to justify these posts today.
So why do these roles still exist if even people who have held them see them as redundant? The answer is political sensitivities.
How would it look if a UK Prime Minister were to abolish the role of Secretary of State for Wales or Scotland?
It would look as though the UK Government didn’t care for those nations, it would be fuel to the fire of Nationalists and could further strengthen the popular causes of independence.
It is easy to see why Unionist politicians have not been overly keen on the idea.
An alternative to abolishing the Secretary of State for Wales role would be to combine it with the roles of Secretary of State for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, together alongside the regions of England.
During the Blair and Brown years the decision was taken to combine the roles with other cabinet responsibilities.
Creating a larger, potentially more power Whitehall department that could hold its own against competing Government interests might be the way forward.
This was the suggestion of the House of Lords Constitution Committee and of the Institute of Government. In the same report Professor Jim Gallagher argued that:
“Instead of three Secretaries of State, and three tiny departments, the United Kingdom should have one substantial department, and one powerful Secretary of State whose job it is to manage the territorial constitution.
Such a move would make the UK more similar to other Federal or Quasi Federal States such as in Canada where the federal government has a single minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, supported by a department within their equivalent of the Cabinet Office responsible for the management of federal-provincial relations.
This role could be accompanied by Ministers of State for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the English Regions, leaving an advocate for each nation in Government.
Would the tidal lagoon have garnered more support from the UK Government if a Senior Member of Cabinet, with a wide range of responsibility, was arguing its case, rather than Cairns who gets 15 minutes a month around the cabinet table to argue for Wales?
Given that at its core the Welsh Secretaries role is a liaison and troubleshooting one, would this be more desirable to argue the case for Wales in Westminster, even if not an advocate for Wales alone?
This proposition is not without its concerns. Symbolically it could give the impression that the devolved government in Scotland and Wales was of the same importance, as an English council or City Region. This is to be strongly avoided.
Additionally, given the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland, the removal of a dedicated Northern Ireland Secretary could not be very dangerous for the peace process.
It could also render the holder of the proposed new role as de facto Northern Ireland Secretary for quite some time, leaving little time to think about Scotland and Wales.
As such even if this position were seriously considered, a dedicated Northern Ireland Secretary could remain necessary.
With these concerns in mind, even I am not completely sold on the idea. Is this something that be given serious consideration, or is it just Cairns in which the people of Wales have lost faith?
The tidal lagoon failure is a Prince Charles Bridge too far for the Secretary of State. Wales deserves better.