The accelerating devolution process

John Osmond argues that the Silk Commission has a much broader canvas than originally envisaged






First Minister Carwyn Jones intends to publish a Green Paper on creating a legal jurisdiction for Wales

The devolution process is accelerating, not only in Scotland where last weekend the SNP launched its campaign for the independence referendum with the slogan “Scotland – its Starting’, but in Wales as well. In the last few weeks we have seen three remarkable developments.

First was the formation of the Silk Commission which will be examining the National Assembly’s fiscal powers and the wider devolution settlement.  What has already become clear in the few short weeks since this announcement is that Paul Silk, the National Assembly’s former Clerk, and his colleagues will have a substantially wider agenda than the bare bones of their terms of reference would suggest.

This is partly because of two other parallel developments within Wales. First are separate talks on the reform of the Barnett formula that determines the Assembly’s block grant coupled with the Welsh Government’s borrowing powers, that are underway between the United Kingdom Government and the Welsh Government. Second was the First Minister’s announcement earlier this month that he intends on publishing a Green Paper on creating a legal jurisdiction for Wales in the New Year. In an address to a Legal Wales conference in Cardiff Carwyn Jones said:

“The Welsh Government is acutely aware that devolution law has added to the complexity of the statute book and we are looking at ways of improving accessibility including consolidation of the law applying to Wales. There is the issue of jurisdiction and how far we go down the road of creating a distinctive legal jurisdiction for Wales. Is it inevitable, now that the Assembly has primary law-making powers, that we must move in this direction and if so what would we need to do to achieve it?”

Plainly, Carwyn Jones’ answer to the first question is Yes, with far reaching consequences for Welsh institution building and Wales’ place within the United Kingdom. But it is developments in Scotland that, as ever, are proving the main impetus to the devolution process.

It’s not just the launch of the SNP’s campaign for the referendum, boosted by £918,000 bequeathed to the party by the poet Edwin Morgan which will be devoted to persuading the people of Scotland to vote Yes. Equally important are signs that the Scottish Labour Party is positioning itself to campaign on what Salmond confirmed at the weekend will be a second question on the ballot paper, for what us known as ‘devo-max’ – that is, full fiscal autonomy for Scotland within the union.

The case was made on Scottish Labour’s website last week by Malcolm Chisholm, MSP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith who was a Scottish Government Minister from 2001 until 2006. As he wrote:

“Scottish Labour is currently caught on the Calman hook and needs to get off it fast if we are to create a Parliament  with meaningful financial powers. The Scottish Government is finding life easy not just because  of  our failings but because the current constitutional arrangements are ironically ideal for enhancing its popularity. All problems can be blamed on Westminster, with a great deal of justification in many cases, while the Scottish Government can claim credit for any improvements that do take place. The situation is particularly urgent because a Westminster government making big cuts was always going to be the best opportunity for the SNP to secure its ultimate goal.

“Scottish Labour must respond by developing a Devo Max position. To be pedantic, that does not have to mean the greatest possible devolution but certainly means very great devolution. We should therefore not just look at what has come to be called Devo Max – that is, the devolution of all taxes and revenues to Scotland – but also at intermediate positions  such as the Devolution Plus advocated by Reform Scotland. That organisation is too right wing in its general policy positions for most of us but it talks a great deal of sense when it comes to the constitution. Reform Scotland believes that  since the Scottish Parliament is responsible for about 60 per cent of Scottish  public expenditure then the Scottish Parliament  should have access to a range of taxes that covers about 60 per cent of Scottish tax revenues. We should certainly explore that position and variants of it as well as the ultimate Devo Max option. A key part of our consideration must be how much of social security expenditure should be devolved, but we should be in no doubt that demands for that will grow as the massive social security cuts from Westminster kick in.

“I believe that Devo Max in some form is the right position for the good governance of  Scotland and the best way of ensuring that Scottish priorities are to the fore in all domestic policy areas. Those who are not convinced  of that should perhaps reflect that nailing our colours to  Calman and the Scotland Bill will boost the independence vote in the forthcoming referendum, as evidenced a few weeks ago when two well-known Labour figures told me they would vote for independence if the alternative was Calman. We need a three question referendum and Labour has to define what Devo Max means as a matter of urgency.”

So it is looking increasingly likely that, even if Scotland does not vote for independence in its referendum, it will at the very least opt for ‘devolution max’.  And however that is framed it will have substantial consequences for the rest of the United Kingdom, not least Wales. Inevitably, it will entail a fundamental recasting of the fiscal relationship between Westminster, Wales and Northern Ireland for a start.

As important it will bring into much sharper focus for the English their position in relation to the rest of the British Isles with consequences that we can only dimly foresee at the present.  And how long will Scotland be satisfied with devo-max in any event? As I say, it turns out that the Silk Commission has a much broader canvas that was envisaged only a few weeks ago.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA