In a UK political culture in which we have to search very hard for a constitution – something that the Westminster Parliament makes up as it goes along – it is intriguing that Wales appears to be heading rapidly towards its sixth. Last year the House of Lord Constitution Committee declared that “The Government of Wales Act 2006 … is, in effect, a written constitution for the governance of Wales.”
In a speech at the National Eisteddfod last August the Presiding Officer, Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, argued that the Act meant Wales was not living through its fifth constitution in 700 years. The first Welsh constitution, he said, came into force on 3 March 1284. This was the Statutum Walliae, a charter proclaimed by Edward I. Following the death without heir of the last native Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, in a skirmish at Cilmeri on 11 December 1282, Edward I completed his conquering of the country. The Statutum Walliae imposed a unified system of governance on England and Wales.
The second constitution, the Laws in Wales Act 1536 abolished what remained of the distinctive Welsh legal system and tied Wales into England’s parliamentary system. It was rushed through the English Parliament with the result that after it had had been passed, it was found to contain a number of defects. Consequently, it was necessary to return to the Welsh constitutional question just seven years later. This was our third constitution – the Laws in Wales Act 1543 – which tidied up the system that was established by the 1536 Act and which provided the framework for governing Wales until 1999.
Which brings us to the fourth and fifth Welsh constitutions – the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 2006. As the Presiding Officer said, “The 2006 Act is far superior to any of Wales’s previous constitutions. It is not perfect by any means, but is has a unique quality, in that it has the potential to enable Wales’s constitutional system to evolve according to the will of the people of Wales.”
We will see next Tuesday whether Opposition members in the Assembly will allow that will to be expressed sooner rather than later when they vote on the Government’s motion to trigger a referendum on increased powers.
Meanwhile, only yesterday the Assembly’s Subordinate Legislation Committee decided to re-brand itself as the Constitutional Affairs Committee. The change was explained by the Committee’s Chair, North Wales Plaid AM Janet Ryder in the following terms
“The National Assembly for Wales has undergone many changes since the 2006 Government of Wales Act and its remit has increased greatly as a result of changes put in place after the Act. The committee’s role now goes far beyond technical scrutiny of Subordinate Legislation – it also scrutinises the merits of these laws, any public policy issues that may arise from them and a variety of other matters. It is the only Assembly Committee in a position to look broadly at the developing legal competence of the National Assembly and how those powers are acquired – in short at the Welsh Constitution.”
There it is in a nutshell, our constitution evolving before our very eyes. How far and how fast we evolve will be up to us, whenever that referendum comes. In the words of the poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939), a supporter of the Republic in the Spanish civil war:
“Our footprints are the only road;
we make the road as we travel.”