Carwyn Jones calls for written constitution

John Osmond reports on a speech by the First Minister in which he predicted a radical shake-up of Wales’s relationship with the rest of the UK

First Minister Carwyn Jones yesterday said the United Kingdom was on the brink of major constitutional change, which would radically change Wales’s relationship with the rest of the union. Speaking to a conference in Cardiff Bay to launch a three-year research project on Wales and the Changing Union being undertaken by the IWA in association with the Wales Governance Centre and Cymru Yfory/Tomorrow’s Wales, he declared:

“We are on the brink on huge constitutional change in the UK. There is a strong case for reforming our central institutions to reflect the emerging reality of a looser UK. We should be moving forward as a Union to a constitution that reflects the 21st not the 19th Century. We must consider the prospect of a written constitution which in part would define the relationship between the Devolved Administrations and UK Institutions. The UK has changed beyond recognition over the past 15 years and it is time that our constitution recognised this.”

Reiterating his call for a Constitutional Convention that he made a few weeks ago, to consider the future of the UK in the round and not nation by nation in a piecemeal fashion as had been the case hitherto The First Minister acknowledged that the agenda was being driven by Scotland

“If the people of Scotland vote in favour of independence the shape and constitutional make-up of the UK will be dramatically changed. Equally, if the vote is against independence there is still the prospect of substantive constitutional change in one part of the UK that potentially will impact on all other parts of the Union.”

And he added:

“We need to start discussing the future of the UK before the Scots go to the polls. We need a comprehensive look at what kind of UK we want to have.”

He said a written constitution was needed to entrench the position and role of the National Assembly to safeguard it from arbitrary abolition by Westminster. “Is it right for the UK Parliament to be able to abolish the National Assembly?” he asked. However unlikely that prospect might be he said the possibility could not be right. “We need the protection a written constitution would provide us.”

He repeated his suggestion that under a written constitution the House of Lords could be reformed so that it became, in effect, a federal upper chamber with equal representation for each of the four nations of the UK. “An arrangement like that could help bind the together the nations of the UK.”

He described the present constitutional set up as “an incremental asymmetric quasi-federation” that was far from satisfactory. “The UK has changed and the constitution needs to catch up,” he said.

Another problem he highlighted was what he called “the Bridgend Question”, after his Assembly constituency. This was his riposte to the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’, named after the former MP for the constituency Tam Dalyell who raised it during the 1970s devolution debates. This referred to the anomaly in which MPs from Wales and Scotland can vote on English domestic affairs, while following devolution English MPs cannot do so in relation to those same matters in Wales and Scotland.

This position was reversed in some areas of European policy, especially agriculture which is wholly devolved. Speaking from personal experience as a former Minister of Agriculture in the Welsh Government, Carwyn Jones said that in the European Council of Ministers Britain’s case was put by the English Minister for Agriculture, regardless of whether Welsh, Scottish or Northern Ireland Ministers agreed or not.

He added that there used to be monthly meeting of Agriculture Ministers to agree a common UK line but that this practice had lapsed, with the English Minister deciding the UK’s position regardless of the views of the devolved administrations. This was another matter that a written constitution could address.

The First Minister also set out his views on the fiscal and borrowing powers of the National Assembly. His first priority was reform of the Barnett formula that decided the size of the Welsh block grant to tackling the under-funding that had been established by the Holtham Commission.

Following this there was an urgent necessity to give the Welsh Government borrowing powers that were now enjoyed by both Northern Ireland and Scotland. He gave the example of major investment that was needed to upgrade the M4 around Port Talbot and also tackle the pinch point of the Brynglas Tunnels at Newport that could only be undertaken by borrowing. Unless this was addressed Wales could find itself as being the only part of the UK where such major projects could not be implemented.

He said that transferring income tax to he Assembly would require a referendum because of the precedent set by the Scottish referendum on the issue in 1997, in which there were two questions, one on creating the Scottish Parliament and the other on giving it income tax varying powers.

Devolution of corporation tax would provide the Welsh Government with a useful tool for economic development but there was a risk of a race to the bottom if all the devolved administrations decided to have a bidding war on lowering the rate. Nonetheless, if Northern Ireland and Scotland were successful in levering control of corporation tax from the Treasury Wales should not be left behind. There was a stronger case for devolving:

  • Stamp duty – so the Welsh Government could assist first time buyers.
  • An aggregation levy on the commercial exploitation of rock, sand, and gravel.
  • A land-fill tax.
  • Airport duties as a tool for the rejuvenation of Cardiff airport.

However, the First Minister’s line in the sand was that there could be no movement on taxation to make the National Assembly more fiscally accountable until the prior issue of funding via the block grant was settled satisfactorily.

Taken together this was the most radical speech on the UK constitution by a Welsh Labour leader in a generation. Carwyn Jones acknowledged that he was unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing from the Prime Minister David Cameron or the Secretary of State Cheryl Gillan, who earlier this week had dismissed the launch of his Green Paper on establishing a separate jurisdiction for Wales.

“But we should at least start the debate,” he said, noting that Wales had developed its constitution much faster over the past decade than many people had anticipated:

“In 1999 it would have been thought unlikely that the people of Wales would have supported primary legislative power so emphatically in the referendum last year. At the moment the UK government has its eyes turned to Scotland. But you cannot solve these problems by looking at just one part of the UK.”

And anticipating criticisms that these arguments were not relevant to the concerns of ordinary people he said:

“Some people may say that constitutional debates are only of academic value, but I have to disagree. The outcomes of these debates will impact directly on how we as a Government deliver our services to the people of Wales.”

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

17 thoughts on “Carwyn Jones calls for written constitution

  1. He’s not wrong, but isn’t it a little late for a 3 year research project on Wales and the Changing Union? Scotland could have declared independence before the report is published and it’s recommendations made public, leaving the Anglo-Scottish-Irish Union in which Wales is merely a prior adjunct of England defunct. Unless, that is, Carwyn really does believe in a new “United Kingdom” of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, or will it be England and Wales, and Northern Ireland? Perhaps by then with the imminent prospect of the Scots declaring independence the English will want their own independence, leaving Wales and Northern Ireland to go our own way. All possible options need to be considered for any research to be worthwhile, don’t you think, regardless of any personal preferences at this stage? Isn’t that what a true leader of Wales would do?

  2. Fat chance Carwyn has of succeeding. The Westminster turkeys won’t vote for Christmas. I suspect they’d prefer to let Scotland go, and cut Wales loose first.

    Neither the Tory party nor Labour would survive the abolition of parliamentary sovereignty – so sure as hell they’ll never willingly vote for it.

    A nation’s constitution is the foundation on which it’s built. It is fundamental. Get it wrong and nothing works well. Britain has been living proof of that. The UK is alone among the two hundred sovereign states, with its so-called unwritten constitution. In reality it’s become a rogue’s charter, where almost anything goes. We see the effects of it almost daily, where a PM remains in office when it’s revealed that people can buy his time for £250,000. We have witnessed abysmally bad government, and UK has declined economically, politically and morally for a century or more.

    Scotland and Wales can escape the constitutional morass that is the UK, with a simple vote in an independence referendum if they have the good sense to do so. I fear that England will be stuck with it in perpetuity, short of a popular revolution to overthrow the corrupt elites and cliques at its heart.

    Carwyn, you’re in a party which has let your country down time and time again. It has given Wales an ineffectual Assembly and done its best to prevent it gaining any real power. That’s the reward that the people of Wales have got from a century of loyal support to a party which has lost its principles.

  3. I agree with Neilyn. Talk about being late entrants into the debate. I think that so many people in Wales are sleepwalking when it comes to the realities of a post-2014 ‘Scottish Yes’. The UK will be no more. So any discussion about ‘the new UK’ or ‘UK minus ‘the north’, as I’ve heard people say are missing the point. England will wake up (believe it or not!) and there will be a rapid clamour for an English Parliament, that would, from the outset, be far stronger than our timid Assembly. Wales has to demand parity or else, along with Northern Ireland, it will be part of the ‘pointless periphery’ when it comes to European political and economic thinking. Our debates, therefore, have to move beyond the ‘iron cage’ of devolution, and we have to start to articulate what a Welsh nation – a Welsh ‘nation-state’, that is – could achieve above and beyond the debilitating limitations that are apparently being set by the ‘Changing Union’ remit.

  4. Some people may be sleepwalking but others are dreaming while awake. I don’t know whether Scotland will go independent but I would note it is odds against with the bookies. At any rate Scotland could afford to do it if it wanted to. Its income per head is much the same as the UK average as is its budget deficit. Out of the Union it would be a few billion worse off perhaps, but quite manageable. Wales and Northern Ireland have incomes per head around three-quarters of the UK level and run budget deficits of 30 per cent of their GDP. Independent they would have to slash benefits and other government spending by at least half to balance the books. What was that about turkeys voting for Christmas? Would the English throw us out in pique if the Scots left? I think they’d want to keep a United Kingdom otherwise it’s goodbye to the security council, sea and other marks of status.

  5. Tredwyn

    If Scotland goes, and I have a feeling the bookies may not be right, then the Rump (call it what you like) will have nowhere to park its nuclear toy. Bye bye Security Council soapbox.

    Wales’ Catch 22 situation has to be addressed sooner or later. It is poor and getting poorer. No-one other than the people who live here can or will do anything about it. They just need to be given a plausible alternative to the blue Tories, pink tories and the yellow tories, who between them have been running Westminster and Wales extremely badly for a century or more.

    Change will be coming to Wales, one way or the other, and sooner than many people, including the bookies, think.

  6. So everyone has run Westminster and Wales “extremely badly for a century or so”? Dave, over the last 100 years life expectancy has nearly doubled and material living standards have improved six times over. I think you doth protest too much. Presumably you object to virtually ANY political strategy, whether it be the Butskellite post-war consensus around Keynesian economics, full employment and the welfare state, the monetarism, deregulation and privatisation of the Thatcher era, or New Labour’s attempt to find a ‘third way’?

  7. Sadly once again we have a speech full of half baked, ill thought out ideas. Constitutions have in the past often been drawn up by Constitutional Conventions. But those Conventions have also often been directly elected for that purpose in order to have democratic legitimacy. A Convention of the great and the good will not even get off the first base when it comes to democratic reform. Press reports already indicate that the joint UK Parliamentary Committee on Lords reform will quite rightly recommend a UK wide referendum before any reform is implemented. Changing an unwritten constitution to a written one would also in my opinion require formal approval by the UK electorate through a referendum. It is also absurd to argue that because the USA has a constitution which allows equality in the Senate between states whatever their size that such a system could work in the UK. The system in the USA reflects historical development in that country between 1783 and 1865 and is not in my opinion a pointer to future political developments in the UK. No one in Westminster from any of the major parties is also going to take seriously the idea that UK agricultural policy towards Europe should somehow be decided by the 3 devolved regions. Constitutional issues might interest some and is obviously the bread and butter for the devo industry in the academic world which has developed since 1999. For ‘real Wales’, however, the important issues, as the Labour Party quite rightly argued last year, are the economy and the delivery of services in a very difficult financial environment. On constitutional reform perhaps we should all wait to see the deliberations of the SIlk Commission and the results of any Scottish referemdum before we start to produce castles in the sky.

  8. Dave,
    I don’t think a Security Council seat requires a nuclear bomb but anyway the UK could put some token warheads on cruise missiles if necessary, You don’t have to use submarines. However if the state ceases to exist a seat couldn’t be automatic for a successor state. Anyway I have confidence in the imperial reflex of the English establishment. We can’t get the army out of Afghanistan, never mind the Mynydd Epynt. They won’t volunteer to go.
    Jeff Jones,
    What exactly are you waiting for from Silk? They certainly won’t tell you anything that isn’t in the Holtham report. You have all you are ever going to get to make your mind up now.

  9. I agree with Jeff Jones that it would be silly to build castles in the sky. The odds are still against a Scottish Yes vote, and Welsh circumstances are very different. But that doesn’t mean we should not be thinking ahead. We have a tendency in Wales to wake up to the consequences of policy developments outside our borders rather late in the day; to be reactive when others have made their proposals. There is so much at stake in the next few years, that we need to think through the consequences for Wales and the whole of the Union of both Scottish independence and other constitutional options short of that. That is also why I think we should give Carwyn Jones some credit for taking a more holistic approach to these issues.

  10. I agree with the basic thrust, the so-called home nations should be treating each other as sovereign equals as I think it would bring greater equality and equanimity between us all. The idea of establishing a council of the isles would be progressive.

  11. Spot on, pretty much agree with everything he says, whatever happens in Scotland, whether they stay or go, we need to overhaul the whole structure of the UK, and this is probably even more so if Scotland stays.

  12. There is no ‘English Minister for Agriculture’. England has no ministers as they are all UK ministers. This highlights the problem that Carwyn Jones has raised. The UK government is implacably opposed to having an English Parliament, English First Minister and English government and this means that a federal structure for the UK is linked to the abolition of England in favour of English ‘regions’. The people of England are however just as implacably opposed to its partition and return to the kind of squabbling heptarchy which preceded England’s creation over 1000 years ago. The latest wheeze is devolution to English cities (will they rule their hinterlands and become ‘city regions’?). None of the main political parties issues a manifesto for England – they have manifestos for the UK, Scotland and Wales. As a result of Unionist policy, England has no voice – not in the agricultural negotiations, nowhere in the EU, nor in the British-Irish Council. ‘Made in England’ has almost disappeared in favour of ‘Made in Britain’. The Union has to evolve if it is to survive and devolution is now seen as ‘a process not an event’. Carwyn’s proposal requires the political restoration of England, each of the four nations to have its own Parliament, with the House of Lords acting not only as a revising chamber but also as the base of the British government, managing UK defence, foreign policy and fiscal matters.

  13. Not quite as simple as that Julian. The UK Minister of Agriculture whose writ only runs in England will either ‘ride roughshod’ over England as well or ignore England altogether. While Scotland and Wales do at least have governments to represent their interests, England does not. As an illustration, when Labour was in power, the Scottish govt supported a bid by a Scottish club to host an international women’s golf tournament. Their rivals for the bid, an Oxford golf club, asked why the ‘English govt’ did not give similar support to their bid. The then MofSport, Caborne, replied, rightly, that as the UK minister he could not support one part of the UK against another. So Oxford had no govt support. The UK govt governs England but it is not an English government. It is not unlike a colonial government.

  14. Your are all wrong. It is my belief, that when Scotland becomes independent, Britain, the UK or any other incarnation of a British State will cease to exist. England will become independent by default and anything done in the name of Britain will cease to have value.

    There is no provision for the carrying on of the British State if the joint Acts of Union 1706/7 are broken by the independence of Scotland or England. I have researched this point and that research is ongoing. I have found no legislation that alters, overrides or replaces the joint Acts of Union 1706/7 which is the primary Act of Union that created the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Even the Act of Union 1801, which adds Ireland and then Nr. Ireland to the UK does not replace, supercede or override the Primary Act of Union.

    There is a written constitution for England, as I wrote it. It may not be perfect. It is in it’s final consultations phase. It can be viewed here:

    I tell you now, if the Welsh want an equitable deal for a new future, they had better treat England peacefully and farely, and make it known to the UK government that England should be given a devolved parliament equal in status to Scotland. Because if England and the English people are continued to be treated so disgracefully under devolution, any future equitable deals between Wales and England will be gone.

    England will not bow to anyone who would use our current weekened state against us. Be warned.

  15. Mark Higgins,
    I think the whole point in opening up the debate is to try and arrive at a fair consensus for all the nation states. I think/hope Mr Jones did not intend to threaten England in any way.
    The union of the UK + NI is all any of us alive today have ever known.
    I agree that if (when?) Scotland votes for independence that “Britain, the UK or any other incarnation of a British State (as we know it today) will cease to exist” .
    But whether Scotland votes yes or no we will still be in uncharted waters.
    That is why a rational debate and exploration of all scenarios is a must.
    We will need to achieve an equilibrium that best serves all the peoples of the British Isles.
    The form of that equilibrium is what needs in-depth discussion.

  16. It always amazes me why so many of my fellow Englishmen are against towns, cities and regions in England having some power, and always want a centralised English Parliament. The city regions are an attempt to give other parts of England a stronger voice, so that they are not drowned out either by London or by the devolved govts in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

    Most of us in the provincial parts of England feel just as English as the ‘home counties brigade’ however, we need an Independent/devolved England to work for us too. The risk of a heavily centralised English Parliament is that we will be even worse off than under the current arrangement, we need as much power as possible devolved to county/city level with the centre used to co-ordinate things in the national interest like transport, defence etc, and speak for us on foreign affairs.

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