Wales and the changing union

John Osmond traces how events in Scotland are driving devolution in Wales






The debate over a referendum on Scottish independence is causing some in the Conservative party to consider federalism

Events in Scotland are driving the devolution debate in Wales. There was a flurry of debate during January and February over the nature and timing of the Scottish referendum on independence. In Wales this is having the effect of turning important sections within Welsh Labour and the Welsh Conservative Party into federalists.

First Minister Carwyn Jones led the way with his demands for a constitutional convention leading to reform of the House of Lords into, in effect, a federal chamber for the rest of the UK if Scotland were to become independent. A similar call was made the other day by Conservative Aberconwy MP Guto Bebb. He wrote in the Western Mail that the House of Lords could become “a second chamber for the Union”. The underpinning intellectual case is being made by David Melding AM in his latest book which we are serialising on ClickonWales here.

These debates provide the backcloth for a timely conference Wales and the Changing Union we are organising at the end of next week (30 March) in association with the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University and Cymru Yfory/Tomorrow’s Wales – details here. Among our speakers are the First Minister himself, Paul Silk who is heading the latest Commission into Wales’ constitutional future, Sir Emyr Jones Parry, a member of the Commission on the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons – seeking a solution to the West Lothian Question, and speakers from Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as a full complement of Welsh politicians. Guardian columnist and leader writer Martin Kettle, who is following these matters very closely, will also be speaking. In a recent editorial he commented that the legal notion of ‘England and Wales’ is coming to an end. In future we will have to consider them separately.

But it is the politics rather than the legal or constitutional niceties that continue to drive the debate. The next major upset looks likely to come with the local elections in Scotland in May. Already, for the first time in 40 years, Labour does not have a majority in Glasgow. There is now a strong possibility that the SNP will win control in May. Writing in last weekend’s Scotland on Sunday Duncan Hamilton, remarked:

“Just stop and think about that – an SNP administration running Glasgow! It raises the real prospect that the Labour party apparatus in Glasgow which has sustained the party in power for decades, will crumble. The coming election already has the unavoidable feeling of Custer’s last stand.”

A useful analysis of Scotland’s constitutional options – ranging from the status quo (with the additional powers in the Scotland Bill), through ‘Devolution plus’ and ‘Devolution max’ to independence – was given by Alan Trench at a seminar in Edinburgh at the end of last week, available here. His overall conclusion was that whatever the outcome there will be a significant upheaval in intergovernmental relations across the UK. There will be a need for major changes in the way governments interact and an increase in the issues on which they will need to do so.

Our conference next week sees the formal launch of our three-year Changing Union project which is attempting to get to grips with all these issues. The first question is whether we can develop a common understanding and language about what is being contemplated? What do we mean by the concept of sovereignty in terms of the powers of the devolved institutions within Britain? How would devolution-plus or devolution-max affect this concept? In the context of separation, what is the meaning of independence in an increasingly inter-dependent world in which global economic events are beyond the decisive influence of continental-sized countries let alone the smaller countries of the EU?

Another major consideration is the extent to which England and English political interests will engage in these conversations in a meaningful way? It is striking that so far England – by far the largest component of the United Kingdom – has hardly been party to the discussion in the devolution story.

Thirdly, what would be the consequences for England, Wales and Northern Ireland of Scottish secession from the United Kingdom? How would Scottish separation affect the internal relationships within a truncated United Kingdom, given the very different political and constitutional contexts in which England, Wales and Northern Ireland operate?

We are also discussing options for alternative political relationships between the countries of the UK other than the present pattern of asymmetric devolution or complete separation. Is there somewhere along a spectrum – from union state devolution to federalism to confederalism to independence – that would be mutually acceptable if not preferable for all?

These questions raise many issues. The union is many things: a union of Crowns, a political union, an economic union, and a social union. What are the options for change and reform on all these dimensions, short of separation? This is a large agenda, and it is a reflection of the reluctance of UK politicians to engage with fundamental constitutional thinking that it has yet to be addressed in a systematic way. In the coming months and years the IWA, in collaboration with our partners, plans to promote a conversation that will engage all the countries of these islands on these arresting themes.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.