Catching up with the devolution debate

Alan Trench puts First Minister Carwyn Jones’ proposal for a constitutional convention for the UK under the microscope

Carwyn Jones’s intervention in the constitutional debates has been to decry the extent to which they have focused on Scotland, and to suggest a grand ‘constitutional convention’ to agree a future for the United Kingdom. This is an idea that has been around in Welsh, particularly Welsh Labour, circles for some time (see, for example, this piece on WalesHome by Mick Antoniw AM).

Such a proposal is rather a doubtful one, particularly at this time. A convention would run huge risks of running into the ground, and might well undermine the very goal Jones is trying to achieve.

There are three specific problems with it. The first is the question of who would take part in such a convention. Would it be the devolved and UK Governments? What about AMs, MLAs, MSPs and MPs? How would delegations from the various institutions be chosen? Who would speak for England, as a whole or its various parts?

It’s far from clear how one would constitute such a convention, and what their mandates might be. And, if the purpose of a convention is to keep the UK together (or even widen the debate beyond a bilateral Scottish-UK) as one, how is the SNP to be included in that process? It’s impossible to see how it could or why it should do so in the run-up to an independence referendum, especially if the remit of the convention is to continue to secure the integrity of the UK. After all it was wording of precisely this kind that excluded the SNP from the Calman Commission. Political nationalism in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is as valid a current of politics as any other, and must be included in the process, however uncomfortable that might be for unionist politicians, and however much it complicates already-difficult processes.

The second problem is that it’s premature at this stage to try to address these issues. What are the interests of Wales here? Jones may have a clear sense of the interests of Welsh Labour here (though others in the party may not necessarily share his view). But there’s more to Wales’s interests than those of one party. If there is to be some sort of grand convention, there needs to be much greater, cross-party consensus about what these might be, so that they can be taken into that convention. That of course is a complex matter – there are great differences between the parties (and other actors with an interest) in these questions. Until there’s some clear position, it’s hard to see how any convention can be established.

If those questions are problematic for Scotland or Wales, they’re much more difficult in England. How can one identify the various units to be involved, and the relationship between them? One of the several problems with England is precisely the lack of certainty about that. Again, many currents of opinion within England need to be included, and many of those remain inchoate or developing.

The third problem follows from the second. It’s pretty evident that what might be appropriate for Scotland is not for Wales, and the same for each other part of the UK. That is a long-standing problem, faced very notably by the Kilbrandon Commission in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which in effect came up with three positions on each major issue – the majority position, the minority position, and the Crowther-Hunt/Peacock dissent (see Wikipedia here for more details).

In reality, however, the problem now is even greater. So far as the Union in the 21st Century constitutes a bargain between its various parts, the bargain is different in each case. What is vital for Wales is of much less importance in eastern England. To the extent there is a ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ or ‘north-east English’ interest in the Union, each of these is different.

Trying to set up a convention to resolve these issues without being clear about what the interests of the various groups are, and how they relate to each other, will be impossible. The asymmetric nature of that bargain means that the first step in any process of trying to refound the Union has to be work out the interests of the various parts, in the hope that these can be reconciled.

Jones’s proposal resembles David Cameron’s moves regarding a Scottish independence referendum in one major respect. It’s an attempt to abbreviate a process, and move straight from one of the first moves in the sequence to one of the last. Constitutional politics becomes very dysfunctional if one does that. The process is an important part of the substance; it becomes the means by which areas of agreement and disagreement are identified and resolved. A big-bang approach cannot resolve such complex questions in any sort of stable or lasting way.

If the goal is to ‘refound the Union for the 21st Century’, a better approach would be to start by staging that wider-ranging assessment of Wales’s interests for the foreseeable future, and see where consensus across Wales’s parties, civil society and public at large lies. That would be far from easy, but it’s the unavoidable first step on the path Jones seems keen to tread.

However, that would face two major problems of process. One is the overlap with the work of the Silk Commission, which perhaps could have been the forum for this had the Welsh Government not tried to limit what it can and cannot look at through the terms of reference. The other is the fact that the agenda for that assessment would need to be very open, in contrast to all the reviews that have taken place since devolution.

The terms of reference for the Richard Commission, the All Wales Convention and now the Silk Commission were all tightly constrained. Those were not strictly observed in practice by either the Richard Commission or the Convention, but the restrictions showed an intention and still had some effect. It’s less clear if the Silk Commission feels similarly constrained; Paul Silk said they did not when he gave evidence to the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee last Tuesday. If the goal Jones has set out were to be achieved, there could be no similar limit on a later Welsh commission – problematic though that might be.

The alternative approach – for politicians at UK level, rather than in other places – is to start to emphasise the many dimensions of the UK and its multi-national character. It has so far suited the SNP to depict the relationship as purely a two-way affair, and unionist politicians in Scotland and at Westminster has gone along with that. The lead in that has to come from the UK level, not Wales or Northern Ireland. The Coalition has not been keen to articulate its overall vision for the UK, however.

Alan Trench is a non-practicing solicitor and an academic, associated with the University of Edinburgh and the Constitution Unit at University College London. This article first appeared on his blog Devolution Matters.

8 thoughts on “Catching up with the devolution debate

  1. It seems to me that the unionists are finally considering what is wrong with the way the UK is organised, but they have left it about 40 years too late, and events have overtaken them. Labour were founded and came to power on the promise of home rule (devo-max) for Scotland and Wales, then they abandoned that, in 1955 I believe. I bet they rue the day now.

  2. The idea of a convention is what you get when you indulge in what is basically the back of a fag packet thinking I’m afraid. If you really want to create a constitution for the 21st century then you probably would have to directly elect a Constituent Assembly. The problem at the moment is that the decision by the UK government to force Salmond to actually put flesh on the bones of a referendum has caused some politicians to start to run around like chickens with their heads off. I’m a fan of 24 and some of the comments so far seem to come from the President Charles Logan school of political leadership. As for Wales I wish that commentators would realise that politics is a little more complex than some seem to believe from the March referendum and the May Assembly. In March 65% of those eligible to vote decided not to which surely is sending some sort of message to the political class. In May the turnout was just over 40% and lower than in 1999. Most ordinary people I meet are not that interested in the Assembly or devolution for that matter. Many would have real difficulty in even naming the First Minister let alone any of his cabinet. Yet on the basis of Salmond’s victory last year and a referendum in probably 2014 we have commentators debating the eventual demise of one of the most successful nation states the world has seen. For most people in the UK the most important issue at the moment isn’t Scottish independence. It’s the state of the economy and the effect that this could have on their future prospects.

  3. I think Cornwall has made enough of a case to be considered by any such UK constitutional convention. Along side our attested Cornish national identity, culture and language can be found various calls for greater self-determination (petition of 50,000 signatures for example). Then there is the unknow element that is the Duchy of Cornwall and its relationship to the territory of Cornwall and the rest of the UK.

  4. A thoughtful analysis, Alan
    “…one of the most successful nation states the world has seen”

    It depends how success is measured, and who is measuring it. It seems the Scots are in the process of so doing in relationship to their country.

    The fatal flaw in your reasoning is that you believe that constitutional and economic issues are distinct. They are not. They are interwoven. Of the two, constitutional matters are fundamental – they underpin everything else. I ascribe much of the UK’s failure and decline to the nature of its constitution, or lack of.
    What are the future prospects for Wales if it remains in the UK? It has never prospered within this nation state, and I think it improbable that it ever will.

    The question that unionists, or British nationalists, such as yourself, never answer, is how do you propose to improve the prospects of the people of Wales in the future?

    The demise of the UK is inevitable, it is a matter of time. The demands for home rule have eventually resurfaced after a half-century of forced unionism 1914-45.

    Cameron’s actions and attitudes, which are reflected in the unionist dominated media and press, will, in my opinion, hasten the UK’s end. Attacking Salmond is counter-productive. The Tories and LibDems have no plausible case for perpetuating the union, instead resorting to legal and constitutional objections which are not relevant to the fundamental political fact that large numbers of Scots see a better future outside the UK.

    The British government behaved in exactly the same way when it came to the question of Irish home rule nearly a century ago. It was a failure, nay a refusal, to identify the root causes. The people of Ireland are living with the consequences of Britain’s failures even today.

    I don’t know offhand how many of Britain’s former colonies – colonies of “one of the most successful nation states the world has seen” – are sovereign states and full members of the UN today, but I do know that not one of them has ever indicated any desire to return to rule from London.

    Whatever the Scots decide in 2014, it will be bad news for the Labour party. It might though be a wake-up call for Wales, badly let down by that party despite nearly a century of loyal support, since it remains one of the poorest regions on this continent.

    It’s interesting to note that in the latest poll some 51% of Scots now favour independence, with some 39% opposed.

  5. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that there is any interest in Wales in independence even Scotland decided to vote yes in 2014. In the 2011 Assembly elections the only party that advocated independence , Plaid Cymru came a very poor third. To argue that the economic problems faced by certain parts of Wales would somehow be solved by independence is really a fantasy. The economic problems of the former industrial areas are no different from those in other parts of the UK or Europe with a similar industrial history. The solutions therefore are not specifically Welsh. In any case they can’t be because in reality despite all the spin there is no such animal as a Welsh economy and there never will be. As for Ireland its people are living with the consequences not of British failure but with the consequences of a system that allowed a corrupt nationalist political elite to ruin the country.

  6. If the Welsh government were seen to be vigorously pursuing economic growth and the national interest, it would be easier to argue that they could do still better with more powers. Most people, rightly or wrongly, seem underwhelmed by the use so far of the powers they have. Early years schooling and pro-act programme during the recent recession are regarded as successful by the cognoscenti but generally relative stats on health, education and income show unarrested decline. As for independence, there is no reasonable doubt that the immediate effect would be to make Wales much worse off since we currently receive net billions of pounds in transfers from the rest of the UK. So the improvement in governance and economic performance would have to be enormous just to get us over that initial drop. Most people will be rightly sceptical about such a huge improvement until they see more visible signs of improvement as a result of the exercise of existing powers. I do not despair that there will be such signs; Welsh institutions are immature and everyone improves with practice. It would help though if the electorate paid a bit more attention and was a bit more discriminating. In the end every country gets the government it deserves.

  7. Paraphrasing Jeff Jones final line: “….people are living…..with the consequences of a system that allowed a corrupt nationalist political elite to ruin the country”. This sounds very much like a summary of Wales’ fortunes after a century or so in which it has been subjected to the putrefying British nationalism of the Conservative and Labour parties. As they say Jeff, “we reveal the truth with our Freudian slips!”

  8. @ Fulup, why would independence automatically lead to greater prosperity for Wales? We would still be highly integrated with the English economy, especially if the free movement of people, goods and services is maintained. Monetary policy would presumably still be decided elsewhere – either in London (as per SNP policy) or Frankfurt. And how would the new state address the fiscal deficit identified in the Holtham report?

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