John Osmond on how three Welsh organisations have come together to create a new forum to chart our changing union
First Minister Carwyn Jones, an admirer of the Alex Salmond’s political astuteness, has been pondering for some time how Wales would fare in a truncated United Kingdom if his Scottish counterpart is successful with his independence referendum, now likely to be held in October 2014.
He had been thinking for some time about his statement at the British Irish Council in Dublin last week that the RUK – ‘rest of the UK’ – couldn’t simply carry on as though nothing had happened. He said there would have to be some kind of constitutional convention among those who were left, with many things to consider.
No doubt funding, as ever, would come top of the list. But that would be closely followed by relations with the European Union and the way Wales and Northern Ireland continued to be represented at Westminster. With some panache Carwyn Jones suggested that the House of Lords should be recast into a new upper chamber in which Wales and Northern Ireland should have equal representation to England to ensure that their voices were not drowned out by the House of Commons which would become an even more emphatically English chamber than it is today.
All this may sound rather far-fetched, and perhaps it is, but it nonetheless illustrates the fast moving pace of today’s devolution agenda. For even if Scottish independence does not veer into view as soon as 2014, we can be sure that the devolution process will move ahead in one way or another. For one thing there’s a Bill currently in the House of Lords that, following the Calman Commission recommendations, would confer greater fiscal responsibility on the Scottish Parliament.
This could be a precursor to something being called devolution-max in which Scotland would levy all its own taxes and keep all the revenue, assigning part of it to Westminster to pay for a few residual UK functions such as defence and foreign affairs. That would be virtual independence or, at least, a short step from full independence.
Which ever of these possibilities occur, and you can be sure that some kind of substantial change is going to happen in Scotland within the next three years, Wales will be materially affected. In these circumstances will we be left merely dealing with whatever happens after the event? Or can we find ways of at least participating in, if not influencing what happens?
It was these questions that led to the initiative to create a Forum on the Changing Union that is being launching today by a partnership between the IWA and the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, with Cymru Yfory/Tomorrow’s Wales. Together the three organisations have resolved that we must find a way to stake out a place for Wales in the debate on the constitutional future of the United Kingdom or risk being side-lined by a bilateral settlement between London and Edinburgh.
Our three organisations have come together in a three-year project in which the new Forum will be a platform for constitutional experts and politicians from across the British Isles. It will explore the key characteristics of the current union, how they might be affected either by Scottish independence or by devolution-max, and what responses the other devolved administrations and the remainder of the UK collectively might make in either circumstance.
Either option is bound to raise large questions of equity for all countries of the UK. There would be social and cultural, as well as fiscal and economic, consequences of Scottish independence, or devolution-max. Some would be predictable, such as business taxes or broadcasting, while others would be unpredictable. One of the aims of the project will be to tease out the scale and scope of these possible effects.
The Forum will also look at the lessons that can be learnt from other countries such as Germany, Spain, Canada, and Australia. As Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Director of the Wales Governance Centre, put it:
“The project’s aim is to identify and break through the geographical, political and media barriers that have created separate constitutional debates in different parts of the UK. We have to bring these separate debates together and, if not integrate them, at least make sure that those involved in these debates are more aware of the knock on effects of changes in one country for the rest. It is striking, for example, that to a large extent England – by far the largest component of the United Kingdom – has so far been little involved in the devolution discussion.”
The IWA’s chairman, Geraint Talfan Davies added:
“There is a danger that in the next few years the debate will be framed as a bilateral exchange between elites in Edinburgh and London. However, Wales has both the capacity and the interest to orchestrate the breadth of conversations that are needed. Wales’s position within the United Kingdom equips it to make a unique contribution to the re-imagining of relationships within the British Isles. At the same time we have to begin to research the implications of more radical Scottish devolution, or even Scottish independence, for each and every part of the UK, and for the UK as a whole.”
And Caroline Oag, Chair of Cymru Yfory, said:
“The coming referendum, and the uncertainty about the future of Scotland within the UK, is placing the relationships between the countries of the British Isles on the political agenda in a completely new way. Wales has to make its voice heard, and we have to get a wider public fully engaged in the debate. ”
We are planning the project in two parts:
- At regular intervals until the Scottish referendum the Forum on the Changing Union will convene a group of around 30 so-called ‘opinion formers’ actively engaged with the debate across the British Isles to contribute new thinking on the changing shape of constitutional relationships within the British Isles.
- A second strand of work will be to respond to the agenda of the Silk Commission that has been set up by the UK Government to consider the financial and constitutional future of the National Assembly within Wales.
The response to the Silk Commission will be carried out by three Work Groups:
- A Finance and Funding working group, chaired by former Assembly Member and Welsh Minister, Andrew Davies who is currently working in an advisory role to the Vice Chancellor of Swansea University.
- A Legal Aspects and Jurisdiction working group, chaired by Emyr Lewis, Senior Fellow in Welsh Law at Cardiff University, and a partner with Welsh law firm, Morgan Cole.
- A Scrutiny, Accountability, Capacity and Devolved Powers working group, chaired by former Member of Parliament and Assembly Member Cynog Dafis.
The three Working Groups will not only feed directly into the Silk process itself, but also generate material in a form that will give Welsh organisations and the wider public the solid information base they will require to understand and influence both the Commission’s work and the subsequent Government responses to its recommendations.
Together the three partners involved in the project have won a £50,000 grant from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Foundation. One of the reasons we were successful in this bid was that the Foundation were impressed by the collaboration which it acknowledged was rare in Wales.
As the project unfolds we will be establishing a website, linked to ClickonWales, where you can follow and participate in the debate and also organise a series of seminars and conferences to allow as many people as possible to participate. Watch this space.