Why greater autonomy for Wales is the best way to strengthen the UK

The flags of Wales, Scotland, England and the UK. Picture by Joowwww.

Andrew Potts, Conservative Party activist from Neath

Mark Drakeford said in a recent Financial Times article that he was concerned that Conservatives would try to “clip the wings” of Welsh devolution to reduce the level of autonomy currently being exercised.

“I do think that for some Conservative political figures, coronavirus has demonstrated to them the dreadful mistake that was made in allowing devolution in the first place,” he said.

Whether one considers devolution a mistake or not, it came about as a result of two votes in 1997 – one UK-wide for Tony Blair’s Labour, whose manifesto included a commitment to holding a referendum on the creation of a Welsh Assembly; and the referendum in Wales itself.

Back to 2020 and it seems we are hard-pressed to find anyone particularly happy with the status quo. More powers, fewer powers, scrap devolution altogether or complete independence?

Perhaps the viewpoint with the most momentum at the moment is that of the drive for independence, given impetus by the demand for a second referendum in Scotland.

The growth of YesCymru this year should concern all parties; even Plaid Cymru who must be worried that at the number of pro-independence voters who do not view the ‘national party of Wales’ as their natural home.

But for all the ‘momentum’ they may have, what the latest BBC / ICM poll shows is while there are those on each fringe that both prefer independence (14%) and to scrap the institution (17%), the majority are somewhere in the middle, either wanting the status quo (24%) or more powers (18%).

So while the online debate seems polarised, what the data actually shows is that the bulk of Welsh voters want a degree of Welsh autonomy within the UK.

Therefore, let us focus on making devolution work.

 

Consent

For those who neither want independence nor to scrap the Senedd, the third way being put forward is a model of federalism with shared sovereignty in the UK.

But while various political parties (and indeed factions within parties) might call for ‘radical’ new approaches to the way the UK and its constituent nations are governed, the reality is that the appetite is not yet strong enough for such an overhaul.

This is especially true in England, where federalism would mean splitting the country into the equivalent of county-level states.

My suggestion, therefore, is for a more incremental level of change. Yes, I realise that a YesIncrementalChange Twitter account is unlikely to sign thousands of members in a few days as YesCymru have done.

But there is scope for legislative change which puts the four home nations on a more equal footing, reduces the drive for independence and helps to secure the Union by ensuring greater autonomy and economic security for all.

Part of this would be to look again at the Sewel Convention.

As a central pillar of the relationship between Westminster and the devolved administrations, it provides that the UK parliament does not normally pass legislation that relates to devolved policy areas without the consent of the devolved legislature in question. It also facilitates co-operation between the UK and the devolved administrations.

Until recently the legislative consent process has operated as intended, by facilitating co-operation between central and devolved governments, and as a guarantee of devolved political autonomy.

Before 2018 the UK parliament had never passed legislation without consent where Westminster considered relevant provisions of a bill to fall within the scope of Sewel.

Indeed, many of the bills have conferred additional functions on devolved administrations, whether by extending the executive competence of ministers or amending the legislative competence of devolved legislatures. In doing so, Sewel has – when it works well – strengthened devolution.

However, the passing of the EU Withdrawal Agreement Act and the UK Internal Market Bill, despite opposition from the devolved nations, has shone a light on the relative limits of Sewel.

Devolution+

I believe a potential solution which targets the majority of the Welsh electorate – those disaffected by devolution, those who want more powers devolved, and those who want to see Wales remain within the Union – is a form of ‘Devolution Plus’.

This involves overhauling the Sewel Convention to combine the benefits of remaining in the UK with greater autonomy.

The Institute for Government, with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, has produced the paper Legislating by consent – How to revive the Sewel convention, which lays out a number of key recommendations to mitigate disputes and strengthen relations between the UK and devolved governments, improve transparency, increase ministerial accountability, and improve awareness of the consent process within Westminster.

Prescribing a way for the governments of the UK to work together to reform and strengthen the convention, it recommends:

  • Formal recognition by the UK government that consent is required for legislation that amends the powers of the devolved bodies as well as for legislation in already devolved areas such as education
  • The UK and devolved governments should reach agreement on the limited circumstances in which consent need not be sought for legislation in devolved areas
  • An agreed minimum period for Whitehall departments to share draft legislation with their devolved counterparts before introduction into the UK parliament
  • Ministerial ‘devolution statements’ at the introduction of a bill to set out why consent is required and then again if the UK government has chosen to proceed without consent
  • A greater role for parliamentary committees – such as a new devolution committee – in scrutinising the devolution implications of all legislation and considering how the UK and devolved governments could resolve disputes over consent

The good news is that all four UK legislatures have recognised the need to reform Sewel. So, at least that’s something everyone agrees on.

But for meaningful reform there must be commitment by all parties, particularly Westminster as the ‘senior partner’, to repair relationships and agree on the way forward. Without meaningful reform this is a wound which any political party – or movement – can pick at for its own ends, most especially undermining the Union.

Michael Gove, the UK Cabinet Minister responsible for liaison with the devolved administrations said recently that “devolution can work effectively but, like all relationships, it requires constant attention and in the past there was a slight devolve-and-forget approach [from all previous UK governments].”

More radical reform (a ‘Sewel Act’) beyond the report’s recommendations could ultimately lead to a form of federalism, with devolved legislatures able to veto Acts of Parliament or courts able to strike down legislation passed without devolved agreement, but such constitutional upheaval is a long way off.

We cannot ignore the fact that there are those in the UK who think Westminster is another world. That said, there are plenty of people in Wales who believe Cardiff Bay is a foreign country; a bubble in need of bursting.

So let the four nations work as a collective for a better way forward – greater autonomy for each whilst remaining within a stronger union. It is time for politicians to heal the wounds and repair the Westminster / Devolution relationship.

A Sewel revival. Incremental change may not be glamorous, but bridges are built one step at a time.

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