Mystery tour

John Osmond peers into the future for devolution:

Don Anderson, the former Labour MP for Swansea East and a late convert to devolution, once described it as a mystery tour. Speaking during a House of Commons debate on legislation to allow the 1997 referendum, he said: “I recall the fine story of a bus tour from Cwmrhydyceirw in my constituency. There was a sweep about where the tour would end, and it is said the driver won. The people of Wales are driving this mystery tour. They will decide the pace and direction.”

Indeed, in this respect the sovereignty of the people has been institutionalised by referendums. The 2006 Wales Act allows a referendum to be held, following a two-thirds majority vote in the National Assembly and Westminster agreement, to enable Welsh devolution to move to the next stage of acquiring full legislative power along Scottish lines. The One Wales agreement that created the coalition between Labour and Plaid Cymru committed them to “proceed to a successful outcome of a referendum … as soon as practicable, at or before the end of the Assembly term.” And an ‘All-Wales Convention’ has been established charged with reporting by the end of 2009 on the projected outcome.

In practice, the opportunities for holding a referendum before the next Assembly election in May 2011 are limited. Given that the Electoral Commission has advised against holding a referendum at the same time as the Assembly election, and assuming that a British general election is likely to be held in the first half of 2010, that leaves the Autumn of 2010 as the only realistic window of opportunity. However, by then a Conservative administration may well be in control at Westminster with a raft of other more immediate legislative priorities.

Significantly, one of these will be a plan to reduce the size of the House of Commons. In an interview with the Financial Times (13 January 2009) in early 2009 the Conservative leader David Cameron said his efforts to cut public spending would extend to Westminster: “I think the House of Commons could do the job that it does with 10 per cent fewer MPs without any trouble at all.” An additional purpose would be to instigate a constituency boundary review to ensure that all seats had roughly the same number of electors in time for the general election that followed. The Financial Times speculated that this would entail the number of seats in Wales, traditionally over-represented at Westminster, being cut from 40 to about 30. A day later an embarrassed Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan, told the Western Mail that this would only happen if the Welsh Assembly was granted further powers.

The scene therefore appears to be set for a Welsh referendum a year or so following the next Assembly election, some time during 2012 or 2013. By then the impact of a Conservative government at Westminster, coupled with the threat of a reduction of Welsh MPs, will have served to induce a unity of purpose within the Welsh Labour movement, which is traditionally divided over devolution. In turn this should provide the background for a successful outcome to a referendum, a device that is always fraught with hazard for those advocating change.

Beyond this it is difficult to hazard any predictions for the further advance of constitutional change in Wales. The course of the current recession, together with the over-reliance of the Welsh budget on public expenditure emanating from the rest of the United Kingdom, will be critical factors. So, too, will be constitutional changes elsewhere, especially in Scotland and England. To adapt Don Anderson’s analogy, Welsh devolution may be likened to a charabanc and a mystery tour, but for the foreseeable future it will be circumstances beyond the control of the people of Wales that will be in the driving seat.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA. This is an extract from ‘Independence in an Era of Inter-dependence’, a chapter in a new book Breaking Up Britain: Four Nations after a Union edited by Mark Perryman and published this month by Lawrence and Wishart.

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