The highest praise that one might offer the Silk Commission’s two reports on the Welsh devolution settlement is that they have been of a quality that have matched that of the Richard Commission in 2004 and the Holtham Commission in 2010. This trio of commissions has furnished us with a solid combination of principle, evidence and common sense that stands as a lasting reproof to the too common slipperiness of political debate on constitutional issues in Wales and Westminster.
There are usually four distinct voices singing alongside each other in the devolution debate in Wales – a four-part disharmony: first, devo-abolitionists who know the war is over but can’t admit it; second, worried devo-sympathisers who fret that the performance of the Welsh Government isn’t better than it is; third, the devo-mechanics – the Jeremy Clarksons of constitutional debate who want to tune the car to go faster; and fourth, devo-idealists who dream that one day some London politician will take a convoluted trip via Damascus to a Philadelphia on the Severn to write a federal constitution.
The Silk Commission has some cheer for the last three of these. Meanwhile the abolitionists will stay holed up in their ignored jungle redoubt.
The toughest task of all is to provide some succour for those who fret that the failure of the Welsh Government to produce a step change performance improvement in health, education and local government is an indication that the creation of the Assembly was a mistake. After all, the best possible case for further change would be past success.
The Welsh Government can point to mitigating circumstances – for example, John Redwood’s 1990s reform of local government, or the inexorable increase in pressures on the health service, from which England is suffering too. (A coherent study is needed of the economic and social conditions, as well as the performance of government, in the years before and after the creation of the Assembly.) Even if the Welsh Government can also argue that Westminster is hardly a benchmark for flawless government, its own patchy performance, and the reasons for it, are issues that it has to address. And yet, to argue that its performance is a reason for not tackling a less than perfect constitutional settlement, is just perverse.
Wales has had devolution in instalments – a series of old newsagent part-works, but where you are given the latest issue, not every week, but every five years or so. It is one of the causes of the unending friction between Wales and Westminster, into which the Supreme Court has been drawn, and the reason why the Silk Commission has said so much about improving the relationship between the two governments.
It is also why people complain that the debate in Wales is constantly distracted by process rather than rigorously focused on outcomes. The promise that the Silk recommendations hold out – largely through the move from the conferred powers to reserved powers model – is of stability, clarity and coherence, and the space to focus on results. It offers an intelligent and intelligible settlement that will aid governmental effectiveness, democratic scrutiny and public understanding. What’s not to like?
However, in this context it is sadly predictable that the UK Government, that set up the Silk Commission, is playing for time, and that this approach is being echoed by Labour spokesmen in London. Things will move forward, but it’s a pity that the movement has to be quite so crab-like. Plus ça change. Civil society in Wales will need to play its part in holding their feet to the fire, as they craft their manifestos for the General Election in 2015 and the Assembly elections in 2016.
While the headlines will focus on such things as the devolution of policing or extended powers in the fields of energy or railways, one aspect of the Silk report that will not get the attention it deserves, is its recommendations for improving collaboration between the Welsh and UK Governments. These can be easily, but mistakenly, derided as motherhood and apple pie. However, when the dust settles after the Scottish referendum, inter-governmental relations are certain to assume greater importance than hitherto.
This is particularly important for Wales because it is the devolved territory that has least leverage with the UK Government, and the biggest shared border with England. Our lack of the kind of raw leverage enjoyed by Scotland and Northern Ireland, means that we are more vulnerable to the inadequacies of informal, unsystemised interaction. Our relative size is another reason why Whitehall is more careless of Wales than of the other two.
Yes, there are Memoranda of Understanding and Concordats and Devolution Guidance Notes, but one does not get the impression that these are recited and saluted every morning by UK Ministers and their civil servants. Michael Gove’s unilateral changes to the examination system, or Jeremy Hunt’s comprehensive ignoring of the concordat between the Department of Media, Culture and Sport and the Welsh Government when discussing the future funding of S4C are two obvious cases in point. With many Whitehall announcements you have to guess whether they are applicable to Wales or not.
Sporadic good will is not enough; systems are necessary. Consistent reserved powers across the three devolved territories would be of help. But Silk has also proposed a Welsh Inter-governmental Committee and a Code of Practice with statutory teeth. The former will help Wales, while the latter may also benefit the UK as a whole.
One should not be naïve about this. ‘Let’s all be nice to the Welsh’ will not now echo around Whitehall any more loudly than it will at Twickenham on Sunday. Neither will a ‘devolution champion’ in a Whitehall department be a popular job or an obvious route to promotion. But a Welsh Intergovernmental Committee and Code of Practice that is subject to judicial review might have a more effective bite.
That said, the harsh facts of relative scale in population, expenditure and general salience mean that it is the Welsh Government that will have to make the running on collaboration, even if systemic reform is put in place. In that it will need allies.
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