Adam Ramsay analyses the constitutional positioning of the man he thinks the most talented senior Labour politician in the UK
Most people haven’t heard of Carwyn Jones. Even when I ask friends who are members of the Labour party if they know who he is, they usually don’t. Which is strange. Because he is certainly the person in their party with the most hard power. He can set laws and spend money. And, increasingly, he’s changing the shape of Britain more than any other Labour politician.
Last week, Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones was in Edinburgh. Standing in the Raeburn Room in the university’s Old College – named for the master of Scottish Georgian portraiture – he painted two separate pictures. The first was for the majority who would only glimpse at his speech through newspaper headlines.
This image was one we’ve seen before. In fact, it had the mark of Better Together all over it. “Pooling risk” is the blotting thumbprint of their speech writers. The headline grabbing paragraph was about currency fears. As ever. Brushed onto the canvass, though, even of this picture, were some colours which seemed more like they originated from Jones himself: comparing the relationship between Scotland and Wales to the marriage between Nye Bevan and Fife socialist Jennie Lee; arguing, in a language long drained from the souls of Scottish Labour, that the legacy of the welfare state which binds Scotland and Wales is alive and worth fighting for.
This case against Scottish independence is the picture which you find in most of the newspaper coverage of the speech. But it is not all that was said. And the other image which Jones painted is much more interesting. Let me pull out a few quotes for you.
“The first principle must be one of respect for the devolved legislatures and their essential legitimacy rooted in popular support. This should be enshrined in a constitutional guarantee. It is not right that any of the devolved legislatures should have to depend on the good will of Westminster for their existence. A new constitution should guarantee the continuing existence of the devolved legislatures as permanent features of the Union.”
Though he doesn’t explicitly call for a constitution to be written, it is hard to see how such a guarantee could exist without one of some sort. Second, he argues for the maximum level of devolution possible. As he sees it, there ought to be:
“…a presumption in favour of devolution. The direct and immediate accountability of the devolved institutions is the basis of the case for extending devolution wherever practicable. To my mind, democratic accountability means that, where there are no UK-wide interests, the devolved legislatures should be making the decisions.”
Of course, what this means is not something about which people will agree. If the bedroom tax hits Wales hardest (and it does) does this mean that housing benefit ought to be devolved? Or is it a UK wide interest? I assume he means the former, but all of these questions remain. But such a constitutional assumption, and the existence of a genuine constitution in the first place, would be radical changes to the make up of the United Kingdom.
There is a vague sense of “strengthening, not breaking up” a welfare state whose component parts, other than benefits and tax credits are already largely devolved. But apart from that, the only things which Jones specifically says should remain Westminster powers are defence, currency (which, strictly speaking, is a power held by the Monetary Policy Committee, not Westminster) and “open trade between the all parts of the UK” – which implies the government not really doing anything. So not very much then. He even stole a favourite piece of SNP jargon. The UK, he said, should be a “social union”.
The whole speech, then, is a reminder of four things. First, the independence debate is about powers: which should lie at Westminster, which with the devolved assemblies and parliaments, and which with the EU and local authorities, though these elements are often treated separately. In Scotland there is a spectrum of views. At one end are the Scottish Greens. They want a separate currency and head of state. Next, the SNP, who are pushing for fiscal and foreign policy but want to keep the pound and the Queen. Then, we have the Lib Dems who, though they seem not to talk about it any more, are in theory fans of federalism. After them, there are Labour and the Tories – who both now say they support a greater measure of fiscal policy being devolved. Finally, there’s UKIP.
It’s worth noting that, in this context, everyone is in favour of a “social union”. No one, for example, is arguing for the erection of a border post. I understand that in Catalonia, immigration from other regions of Spain is seen as an issue. In Scotland, migrants from Wales, or England, or Ireland are welcomed by all parties. While the referendum has naturally polarized this debate, Jones’ intervention is a useful reminder that there is a vast consensus in Scotland in favour of significantly more powers for Holyrood, and that this sentiment extends to Wales too. Whatever happens on the 18th of September next year, the constitutional make up of the UK isn’t stable.
The second thing this highlights is that the constitutional debate in these islands isn’t only about Scotland, and it doesn’t end with the independence referendum. What Westminster will concede is still up for grabs. But Wales is likely facing its third referendum since 1997, in which it seems probable that it will secure significantly more powers: Jones has won support for such a position from all 4 parties in the Senedd.
As Iain Macwhirter says, the transformation of Wales from the country which voted overwhelmingly against devolution in 1979 to the one which just secured law making powers and is now seeking tax powers is much more notable than the political swing in Scotland, where there has long been a consensus for devolution. Northern Ireland too is discussing such matters – in particular, corporation tax – and the Scottish government is seriously investigating increased devolution to the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. The UK is rapidly being re-shaped.
The third thing worth noting is that these changes on what many in England would see as the fringes of Britain have the potential to significantly reform the whole of the UK. If Labour win in 2015, the most embedded member of their party, by some way, will be Carwyn Jones. If he can get what he wants from Tories, imagine what he might secure from an Ed Miliband who will need to make up for a lack of Milibandites with significant concessions to those who do have power within the party. And the Welsh Labour leader has told us what he wishes his legacy to be. If a written constitution is secured from the next Labour government by a crusading First Minister, it must, surely include in it more than the distribution of policy levers between the various elected chambers in the UK. Blink, and you’d have missed it, but those who yearn for an enshrined codification of power in Britain may just have won a significant advocate.
And the final thing the speech highlights: Carwyn Jones is, I think by some way, the most talented senior Labour politician in the UK. Were the SNP facing him, their prospects would be very different: while Scottish Labour have been crushed by the SNP, Welsh Labour under him and his predecessor Rhodri Morgan, has thrived.
More significantly, it’s worth considering this comparison. The Mayor of London is regularly tipped to be the next leader of the Conservative party. I suspect you can name him without me prompting. The First Minister of Wales has much more power than the Mayor. While his metropolitan opposite number is playing around with bikes, Carwyn Jones is genuinely bending the UK’s future to his – and his people’s – will. He is younger than Boris, and has achieved remarkable electoral success through the darkest days his party has known. Yet you won’t find anyone tipping him in any discussion of future UK Prime Ministers. If we want to understand how warped UK politics is towards London, think for a moment about the assertion I started with. Most people haven’t heard of Carwyn Jones.
11 thoughts on “Imagine what Carwyn might get from Prime Minister Miliband”
Excellent piece. Ramsay neatly highlights the London-centric nature of politics. Trouble is, London is so far behind the pace of change. It has little vision and is parochial in so many ways. Carwyn Jones is a very fine politician who is steering a steady but determined course for Wales. He is a practical British nationalist who respects Wales, unlike many in his party who despise our nation. Let us hope that Miliband does take his ideas on board.
Interesting analysis, but maybe just wishful thinking. Do you really see English politics swinging back to the left in a couple of years, when all the indications are that they’re heading towards the right? Or at least towards a rejection of the three mainstream parties. In Scotland the SNP are the main alternative, but in England it’s UKIP, sworn to dismantle the Welsh Assembly.
Scotland was once a nation state that chose to go into partnership with England while retaining its laws and some important institutions, and in due time developing others (education, health, social services …) independent of England. So if that partnership is now seen to no longer be an advantage, it’s only right and proper for Scotland to reclaim it’s historical independence.
But that’s unfortunately not true of Wales, which never really had its own nation state, and which was conquered by England and incorporated into England, losing all its native laws and institutions in the process. Any powers exercised in Cardiff are therefore simply devolved, that is on loan, from Westminster, and can in principle be withdrawn at any time. Especially given that from an English perspective they seem unfair, why should the Welsh get more things for free when unlike the Scots they don’t even pay their fair share?
Clearly CJ can see that, fears that, and would like to nail his powers down in a constitution. So in his desperation will do the bidding of Westminster and sing from the Better Together hymn sheet to the Scots. That and inviting Trident to Wales! Pathetic. Like a doggie wagging his tail hoping to be let off the lead for a little longer. The Welsh have a word for such a creature — cynffonnwr.
Considering Carwyn needed a Tory/Lib Dem government in London to even get Silk started it’s very hard to see him having any relavent to Miliband. Labour talk a good talk but their record of increasing failures in Wales show a total lack of ability.
As such it’s no suprise that Welsh Labour consistantly fail to ask for anything from Miliband’s 2015 manifesto. They know they haven’t got any hope of being listened to, and will have to hope the Lib Dems stay in government to deliver what Wales needs.
To think that Carwyn can get what he wants from any of the three main London parties is living in a dream world.
Wales was ignored by Labour for the vast majority of its time in power. After establishing a system which gave them an unending dominance regardless of a minority vote share, little more was ever done.
We only have Silk today becasue the Welsh Lib Dems demanded it as part of the coalition deals. And it will only be delivered because of the work of the Welsh Tories and Lib Dems in driving it forward.
Labour have shown time and time again that they don’t listen to anything Carwyn has to say. As the writer points out a great many Labour members have not even heard of him!
To think he can influence Miliband is living in a dream world. And even if he could, all he would have to show to support his case is a failing heath and education system, and an economy which gets relativley weaker to the rest of the UK as the years go on. Hardly a voice worth giving time to.
Carwyn fiddles while Wales burns…
I agree with Bob’s comments about the London centric media (and we can’t forget the pitiful state of the Welsh Media with the Western Mail’s print run under 30,000 for a population of just over 3million).
We shouldn’t forget that Carwyn wasn’t elected by the people of Wales – the people of Wales elected 30 Labour AMs who then elected Carwyn. Boris and Ken before him were elected directly by the people of London with each getting over 1 million votes in 2008.
The Mayor of London is a high profile role. Boris and Ken were both high profile politicians before they became Mayor. As Mayor they also oversee the single most important service in the capital – transport. No other politician, not even the (English) Health Secretary has such a high profile and demanding job as they are hidden away in the whole Ministerial and Department structures.
No service in Wales compares to Transport for London and even with the best will in the world the new Welsh City Regions -and if it ever gets off the ground, the Metro – will compare either.
“But such a constitutional assumption, and the existence of a genuine constitution in the first place, would be radical changes to the make up of the United Kingdom.”
These dishes however are not on the menus provided by either the Labour or Tory parties. Carwyn Jones (and others) may wish for the seismic change that would bring about a paradigm shift to the UK. Anyone like to hazard a guess as to when one or both of the UK’s leading parties will include such a package of constitutional reform in their manifestos? And for it to function it’s hard to see how reform of the electoral system and House of Lords could be excluded from the package.
“First, the independence debate is about powers: which should lie at Westminster, which with the devolved assemblies and parliaments.”
Isn’t that a devolution debate? An independence debate, which is what Cameron insisted on, is about whether Holyrood or Westminster decides for Scotland.
“If he can get what he wants from Tories, imagine what he might secure from an Ed Miliband who will need to make up for a lack of Milibandites with significant concessions to those who do have power within the party”
Carwyn Jones didn’t get what he wanted (assuming he wanted what he said he wanted) from the Tories. He got what they wanted him to have. He effectively indicates as much in his speech.
I suspect that Ed Miliband would give Carwyn Jones only those concessions that ensured that the number of Labour MPs coming to Westminster from Wales wasn’t adversely effected by a “Midlothion” consequence.
What a load of cringe worthy tosh. Does this guy want a jobs for the boys job? He says nobody in the New Labour Party has heard of Nuclear Submarine Jones in England. Says it all, politics only takes place inside the M25.
This article shows why we need a free Wales. We dont need blokes like this parachuted into Wales to run our country. According to his CV his has never had a real job. He wants to spend two years driving a bus in London and join the RMT and then come and tell working people about politics in Wales.
The fact is that Carwyn Jones is an embarrassment to Wales. I just hope that our Scottish friends realise that most people in Wales want the best for the people of Scotland and that has to be a yes vote for Scottish freedom. The freedom to develop the egalitarian state so beloved by the people of Scotland. The freedom to reject the neo liberal economics of both the blue and Pink tories at Westminster. As for taking advice from Carwyn Jones then just look at he and his parties record in office. Rather than give advice or threaten Scotland, First minister Jones would be far better off trying to get Wales out of the economic relegation zone.
Carwyn Jones’ best feature is his blandness. As to what he will get from Miliband, who can say?
Labour’s record on Welsh devolution has been poor to say the least. The party basically wrecked the 1979 proposals. In 1997 Wales was offered an elected talking shop inheriting the powers of the Secretary of State. Labour ignored the advice of Commissions and passed the 2007 Act which did Wales no favours. Even when Plaid secured a referendum in the One Wales Agreement senior members of Labour in Wales opposed it tooth and nail. Their Secretary of State only supported a YES vote at the last minute, when he realised he would look a fool after saying repeatedly that it would be lost, and a waste of time holding it.
All Labour, and Miliband et al, care about is their majority at Westminster where they can strut their stuff in the corridors of power. To get there they tend to promise this and that, but renege on it when actually in office. First and foremost they need to convert Middle England to the Labour cause. In the past that has involved ditching any pretence of socialism, which became a dirty word. So Labour wil do what Middle England wants, and Wales, like other parts distant from London will be forgotten. We will continue on the downward slope of impoverishment as we have under successive governments, including Labour. Ten per cent of the UK’s population own 44% of its wealth. Wales is the poor relation and under Westminster government that isn’t ever going to change. It sickens me to see Cameron, Clegg and Miliband on the BBC. They’re all the same self-serving politicians. Carwyn is a nonentity and nothing is going to change that.
Wasn’t Wales declared a ‘nuclear-free zone’ in 1982, when all the Welsh councils voted against having nukes? You’re right in your description of him. I think of him as Carwyn ‘Trident’ Jones. His idea of bringing the system to Wales is very telling ~ stupid and shallow ~ a glimpse of the real Carwyn behind his blandness.
“Then, we have the Lib Dems who, though they seem not to talk about it any more, are in theory fans of federalism”
Is this guy for real? Didn’t we see Nick Clegg in Cardiff only a couple of weeks ago, while announcing further powers for Wales, strongly talking about how he and his party believe in ‘Home Rule’?
I’m tempted to say this is the worst article I have read on IWA before. It’s written with such a clear ‘pro Labour’ slant, while being anti all other parties, it’s impossible to take even remotely seriously. Dissapointing.
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