Federalism Could Keep Devolution Simple

John Osmond listens to a history lesson from Wales’s leading lawyer

On a St David’s Day in which a BBC poll showed a 21 per cent lead for those supporting “full law-making powers” for the National Assembly (56 per cent in favour and 35 per cent against), it was noteworthy that Wales’s leading lawyer, the Rt Hon Lord Justice Thomas, came out, if obliquely, for a federal solution to the UK’s over-complex devolved structures. Delivering the annual Wales Governance Centre’s lecture in the Senedd’s newly refurbished Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay, Lord Thomas argued that the public were entitled “to have some understanding about who is accountable for decisions being made.” However, this was made extremely difficult by the over-complexity of the UK’s devolution arrangements. As he put it, “Devolution is exceptionally complicated in the United Kingdom and Wales has the most complicated part of the settlement.” He said we needed a more principled and simple approach and pointed to the 1920 Speaker’s Conference as offering a way forward.

The Conference, under the chairmanship of the Speaker of the House of Commons, James Lowther, was established in 1919 largely as a response to Irish agitation for Home Rule. It followed hard on the heels of the first Speaker’s Conference in 1917 which had achieved agreement between the parties on universal male suffrage and partial female suffrage. In 1919 federalists hoped that the second Speaker’s Conference on devolution could achieve a similar consensus under the auspices of a coalition government under which party divisions seemed, for a time, in abeyance.

Unfortunately for the Conference, however, the Prime Minister Lloyd George decided, during the course of its sittings, to deal separately with Ireland, and a Government of Ireland Bill was introduced into Parliament.  As a result the Speaker’s Conference decided to remove Ireland from its agenda and concentrate solely on Wales, Scotland, Ulster and England. As a result the main dynamic behind its deliberations was removed and its report, when it appeared in 1920, was easily sidelined.

Nonetheless, it is worth recording on four of the matters on which the Conference, made up of 32 members, 16 from each of the Houses of Parliament were able to agree:

  • The division of powers.
  • The division of financial powers.
  • The territorial organisation of the judiciary.
  • The areas in which devolved legislatures should be established.

On this last point the crucial agreement was that the principle of nationality should be fundamental and so the Conference decided that England should not be divided. In short, therefore, the Conference opted for a British federation , made up of England, Scotland, Ulster and Wales.

Equally crucially, however, and another explanation why the Speaker’s Conference led nowhere, was that it failed to agree on whether the devolved legislatures should be directly elected.  Suggesting that the territories should be represented by Grand Committees of their MPs meeting in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, and London Speaker Lowther explained:

“The more I considered the proposal of one supreme and four independent legislatures, the less I liked it. The confusions that might arise, the multiplicity of elections, the novelty of five prime Ministers and Cabinets of probably divergent views, the enormous expense of building four new sets of Parliamentary buildings and Government offices and providing all the paraphernalia of administrations, frightened by economical soul.”

Of course, nearly a century later Speaker Lowther’s “frightened” vision has come to pass, but without the simpler and more transparent arrangements that a federal constitution would provide.

This is what Mr Justice Thomas was alluding to in his St David’s Day lecture, although he refrained from spelling put the political message in such stark terms. Yet he did go on to discuss some other attributes that we should be pursuing in placing the National Assembly on a sounder footing. These, he said, were capacity, competence and confidence.

Lord Thomas had no doubt that Wales now had the legal capacity to take a further step towards full legislative powers. As for competence and confidence, we should seek to emulate Slovenia, that small Balkan country of just 2 million people next door to Italy which, he said, had “a vibrant and mature government system”. It had operated within a comparable timescale to Wales’s devolution experience, achieving its independence in 1991. In 2004 it had joined the European Union and successfully held the Presidency of the European Union in 2008. Now, there’s a thought.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

Also within Politics and Policy