Untangling the Devolution Knot

Alan Trench explains why a London Tory Government would benefit from a ‘yes’ vote in a Welsh referendum

Tomorrow the All Wales Convention will publish its report, widely expected to argue in favour of a move to primary legislative powers for Wales – by bringing Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 into force. The key players in this debate will be from Wales: the Welsh Government, the National Assembly, the political parties in Wales, the Secretary of State, Welsh MPs, and ultimately the Welsh electorate.  But there are strong reasons for those concerned with the UK level of government to favour a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum too.

The most powerful political factors apply to a Conservative rather than a Labour government – we’ve seen how the present system, deeply flawed as it is, can be made to work by a Labour UK Government, and it has strong defenders within Labour (Peter Hain being only the most public). But the logic of the situation is quite different if the Conservatives are in office in London.

It’s clear that the political preferences of Welsh voters are some way away from those in England, wanting more social-democratic policies and solutions than English voters do. ‘Progressive universalism’ is a phrase with powerful appeal in Wales, no matter who is First Minister or which parties are in government, and even if its meaning is unclear. Devolution means that politically it’s very hard for them to impose their will on Wales in the way that John Redwood or even Nicholas Edwards did as Secretaries of State. If they try, they forfeit democratic legitimacy in a way that would be especially damaging now that Wales is a happy hunting ground for Tory seats for both Westminster and Cardiff Bay.

Institutionally, the present situation means that policy for England and Wales is entangled so that what’s done in England has an effect on Wales. Take a bill on something like health care reform; even a decision to exclude framework powers for Wales from a bill like that making policy in England requires a set of political decisions which, thanks to Parliamentary processes, will become highly public. Party-political differences will magnify that.

What’s at present a largely private process of bargaining will become much more public, and much more the subject of contention and dispute. How LCOs might work if each one was seriously disputed is pretty clear in a constitutional sense (they wouldn’t get passed), but has unclear and very grave political implications.  Would it boost the standing of Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour (assuming they’re still in government)? What would Conservative MPs do, and how would their party colleagues in the Assembly respond? What about Welsh Labour MPs? It’s hard to see how anyone would gain. The only certainty in that is that this immobility would further damage the standing of politicians and politics in general.

Implementing Part 4 of the 2006 Act offers a way around these problems, by decoupling policy in England and Wales and creating a degree of political insulation for a Conservative UK Government.  It lets Wales be social-democratic, rather than making the Tories seek to micro-manage the policies of a distinct elected legislature. And it also minimises the scope for embarrassment to flow back across Offa’s Dyke, as Welsh choices are clearly both Welsh and democratic. In such circumstances, a Conservative UK Government can show how tolerant of pluralism and diversity it is. (As an aside, what a devolved government and legislature can do with that autonomy is pretty limited even with the powers Part 4 offers, particularly if the Assembly remains financed by a block grant from Westminster. If expectations of a very tough public spending regime do materialise, that provides a very effective way of getting Wales to make cuts that London wouldn’t dare impose otherwise.)

None of this will be news in Conservative Central Office. It clearly underlies David Cameron’s recent decision to support a request for a referendum if the National Assembly makes one, even if the way that’s been presented to the public is slightly different.

An added advantage for Tories is that it helps to clear the way to reducing Wales’s over-representation at Westminster.  Conservative ambitions to reduce the size of Westminster by at least 10 per cent (which is 65 MPs, making a house of 581, though there’s been talk of an even small House of Commons) are clear.  Reducing Welsh over-representation to parity with England, which has already happened for Scotland, is much easier if Wales possesses an extensive degree of autonomy.  (There is a knock-on problem for the size of the National Assembly, though.)

For Labour, the advantage is that it offers a way to protect a particular sort of social democracy that its Welsh voters clearly prize – and think they already have. If it turns out that the legacy of 12 or 13 years of Labour rule is to weaken that sort of policy, which it was thought to have been strengthened, it won’t do Labour any good either.

Political insulation is not the only attraction of primary legislative powers, however. Devolution in the UK is deeply asymmetric, meaning different things in different parts of the UK. Managing the implications of that asymmetry is hugely difficult within the government machine in Whitehall. While there are plenty of instances of good practice and getting things right, there are also a large number of examples of getting it wrong; the picture is at best inconsistent and patchy.

This creates particular problems for Wales, which is the ‘outlier’ in the sense that it’s the form of devolution least like what happens in the other devolved territories. Even those broadly supportive of the status quo have had to acknowledge this, and the wider political and constitutional nature of what are often administrative mistakes.  Examples abound in the reports that have come from the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee’s large inquiry into Cross-Border Public Services for Wales.  These problems are acquiring increasing political salience, but fixing them without constitutional change is going to be very hard indeed – it requires the sort of thorough-going change that Whitehall has deliberately avoided over the last decade, despite a generally supportive environment for such changes.

Part 4 does not offer ‘Scottish-type’ powers, but it’s closer to them. It reduces the need for constant liaison with Whitehall, and so the danger of Whitehall misunderstanding how Wales and Welsh devolution work. It means that the UK moves closer to having a single template for devolved government, which is adjusted to reflect particular circumstances in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.  That will make devolved government easier not just for the general public to understand, but also politicians and civil servants. From a Whitehall point of view, constitutional change is probably easier to handle than a cumbersome set of managerial changes (which will come when Whitehall faces a set of hugely difficult challenges in other fields). Part 4 fixes a lot of problems for the centre, whatever its impact in Wales.

Alan Trench works with the Europa Institute, Edinburgh University and the Constitution Unit, UCL. He will be speaking at the conference, Life Under the Tories, organised by the IWA and the Welsh Governance Centre at Cardiff University on Friday 4 December (see this website for further information – click on ‘Events’). This post is taken from his Blog Devolution Matters.

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