Silk wants the UK countries to work better together

Geraint Talfan Davies says Welsh Government performance is no reason against moving forward on devolution

The highest praise that one might offer the Silk Commission’s two reports on the Welsh devolution settlement is that they have been of a quality that have matched that of the Richard Commission in 2004 and the Holtham Commission in 2010. This trio of commissions has furnished us with a solid combination of principle, evidence and common sense that stands as a lasting reproof to the too common slipperiness of political debate on constitutional issues in Wales and Westminster.

There are usually four distinct voices singing alongside each other in the devolution debate in Wales – a four-part disharmony: first, devo-abolitionists who know the war is over but can’t admit it; second, worried devo-sympathisers who fret that the performance of the Welsh Government isn’t better than it is; third, the devo-mechanics – the Jeremy Clarksons of constitutional debate who want to tune the car to go faster; and fourth, devo-idealists who dream that one day some London politician will take a convoluted trip via Damascus to a Philadelphia on the Severn to write a federal constitution.

The Silk Commission has some cheer for the last three of these. Meanwhile the abolitionists will stay holed up in their ignored jungle redoubt.

The toughest task of all is to provide some succour for those who fret that the failure of the Welsh Government to produce a step change performance improvement in health, education and local government is an indication that the creation of the Assembly was a mistake. After all, the best possible case for further change would be past success.

The Welsh Government can point to mitigating circumstances – for example, John Redwood’s 1990s reform of local government, or the inexorable increase in pressures on the health service, from which England is suffering too. (A coherent study is needed of the economic and social conditions, as well as the performance of government, in the years before and after the creation of the Assembly.) Even if the Welsh Government can also argue that Westminster is hardly a benchmark for flawless government, its own patchy performance, and the reasons for it, are issues that it has to address. And yet, to argue that its performance is a reason for not tackling a less than perfect constitutional settlement, is just perverse.

Wales has had devolution in instalments – a series of old newsagent part-works, but where you are given the latest issue, not every week, but every five years or so. It is one of the causes of the unending friction between Wales and Westminster, into which the Supreme Court has been drawn, and the reason why the Silk Commission has said so much about improving the relationship between the two governments.

It is also why people complain that the debate in Wales is constantly distracted by process rather than rigorously focused on outcomes. The promise that the Silk recommendations hold out – largely through the move from the conferred powers to reserved powers model – is of stability, clarity and coherence, and the space to focus on results. It offers an intelligent and intelligible settlement that will aid governmental effectiveness, democratic scrutiny and public understanding. What’s not to like?

However, in this context it is sadly predictable that the UK Government, that set up the Silk Commission, is playing for time, and that this approach is being echoed by Labour spokesmen in London. Things will move forward, but it’s a pity that the movement has to be quite so crab-like. Plus ça change. Civil society in Wales will need to play its part in holding their feet to the fire, as they craft their manifestos for the General Election in 2015 and the Assembly elections in 2016.

While the headlines will focus on such things as the devolution of policing or extended powers in the fields of energy or railways, one aspect of the Silk report that will not get the attention it deserves, is its recommendations for improving collaboration between the Welsh and UK Governments. These can be easily, but mistakenly, derided as motherhood and apple pie. However, when the dust settles after the Scottish referendum, inter-governmental relations are certain to assume greater importance than hitherto.

This is particularly important for Wales because it is the devolved territory that has least leverage with the UK Government, and the biggest shared border with England. Our lack of the kind of raw leverage enjoyed by Scotland and Northern Ireland, means that we are more vulnerable to the inadequacies of informal, unsystemised interaction. Our relative size is another reason why Whitehall is more careless of Wales than of the other two.

Yes, there are Memoranda of Understanding and Concordats and Devolution Guidance Notes, but one does not get the impression that these are recited and saluted every morning by UK Ministers and their civil servants. Michael Gove’s unilateral changes to the examination system, or Jeremy Hunt’s comprehensive ignoring of the concordat between the Department of Media, Culture and Sport and the Welsh Government when discussing the future funding of S4C are two obvious cases in point. With many Whitehall announcements you have to guess whether they are applicable to Wales or not.

Sporadic good will is not enough; systems are necessary. Consistent reserved powers across the three devolved territories would be of help. But Silk has also proposed a Welsh Inter-governmental Committee and a Code of Practice with statutory teeth. The former will help Wales, while the latter may also benefit the UK as a whole.

One should not be naïve about this. ‘Let’s all be nice to the Welsh’ will not now echo around Whitehall any more loudly than it will at Twickenham on Sunday. Neither will a ‘devolution champion’ in a Whitehall department be a popular job or an obvious route to promotion. But a Welsh Intergovernmental Committee and Code of Practice that is subject to judicial review might have a more effective bite.

That said, the harsh facts of relative scale in population, expenditure and general salience mean that it is the Welsh Government that will have to make the running on collaboration, even if systemic reform is put in place. In that it will need allies.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

16 thoughts on “Silk wants the UK countries to work better together

  1. I understand and respect where you’re coming from Geraint but your article is discursively contradictory. You correctly identify the key component of influence in politics as what you call ‘leverage’ or what others may call political capital, and you correctly identify that Scotland and Northern Ireland have more of it (in very different ways of course – a lesson in itself). But you then go on to argue that the solution to Wales’ lack of influence will be found in systems and processes (i.e. greater co-operation) and, by extension therefore, not in the self-conscious acquisition of ‘leverage’ or political capital. I can only assume that you believe that ‘leverage’ is permanently and forever out of reach for Wales and we must therefore always seek the approval of our neighbours.

    This concerns me, particularly in that it reflects that ubiquitous Welsh tendency to impose false polarities on our condition and possibilities (a classic symptom of post-colonial psychology incidentally), where we believe that self-consciously acquiring ‘leverage’ will necessarily result in unfavourable and risky conflict with our neighbour, and that (vice versa) relinquishing leverage will result in greater generosity and magnanimity from our neighbour. No doubt there is some truth in both of these statements but seeing the world (and our options) in these binary terms is the psychology of the sub-altern, forced (through bondage) to make impossible choices between two unattractive opposites. The free man and woman, of course, occupies a world where subtle combinations of the two naturally coalesce.

    You correctly identify that Wales lacks influence because it lacks ‘leverage’ or political capital vis-à-vis England. The only real solution to this (in any discussion where a degree of Realpolitik is accepted as inevitable) is to acquire ‘leverage’ through the pursuit of self-interest. Contrary to sub-altern instincts, this is not mutually exclusive with co-operation and better working, and it certainly does not lead inextricably or necessarily to conflict or disadvantage.

    Incidentally, Wales has significant ‘leverage’ and political capital vis-à-vis England should it choose to exploit it, not least of all its high energy potential per capita ratio, its low population density, its strategic location in respect of security, its water, etc., etc. It is only in a polarised world of impossible choices where people run scared of even acknowledging some of these realities.

  2. It is not the opponents of devolution who are in denial – we are all too well aware that it is a very regrettable accomplished fact – but those proponents who still believe, in the defiance of the history of the last 15 years, that it is anything other than a continuous slide in the direction of independence.

    Far from being a settlement, Silk represents the latest stage of that descent. Once it has digested Silk, the Assembly will want more. It always does. That is the nature of all human politics.

    Only two opposing options offer clarity and stability: (1) an admission that we are on the way to independence, or at least some form of substantial autonomy, and a resolution to prepare accordingly; or (2) a willingness to be more critical and flexible about the devolution that has already taken place, including, yes, a willingness to consider abolition where there is clear failure.

    Anything between those two options leaves matters unresolved, and another generation of uncertainty and lost opportunities.

  3. It does not follow at all that more devolution of powers from Westminster immediately means a slide towards independence. The settlements between the three smaller nations and Westminster are inequitable and should be rationalised and England should have its own distinct Parliament as well for it to work properly. In fact we need a Federalised system, if truth be told, with equal powers for all countries if the break up of the UK is to be avoided.

    For instance, the federal cantons of Switzerland vary greatly in population [from around 1.4 Million in Zurich down to a mere 16K in Appenzell Innerrhoden) but they each have equal control of their canton level affairs and an equal say on federal matters within the Federal Council which control the 7 key federal areas. It is a nonsense therefore that the population of Wales, being twice that of Northern Ireland and 2/3 that of Scotland, is the factor here. Or the fact that the Welsh Government is failing slightly in some areas of Education and Health in comparison to England – though England is failing in areas of its own that are not being felt here.

    It is the settlement agreed with Westminster that is flawed from the beginning and understandably so given the lack of confidence on the Welsh side during negotiations and lack of communication with Scotland and Northern Ireland on their negotiation discussions during the same period.

  4. “Meanwhile the abolitionists will stay holed up in their ignored jungle redoubt.”

    Rather derogatory I think Geraint.

    Over the last three years these abolitionists have made up between one in five and one in four of the population. During the same period those wanting Independence in Wales have been between 11% and the current 5% and those wanting further devolution of powers have always been in a minority.

    Those wanting Independence (or endless devo-creep to eventual self rule) are represented by Plaid Cymru…..they tend to poll about 23% of the adult population. All the other political parties in Wales are enthusiastic devolutionists.

    Why is it that you think the people who consider devolution to be an ongoing disaster can be derided with comments like yours….why in particular do you think that this significant minority can be “Ignored”?

    For myself I am content for the present devo-settlement to remain; with any of the imperfections that go with it. After all we know from experience that there is no perfect state of devolution only a “Journey” to independence where the 5% get what they always wanted and the 95% stand scratching their Heads and sying “This is not my beautiful Wales… did I get here?”

  5. No-one has yet answered the question I posed in the Western Mail before the first Devolution vote,even before we knew what choice of what sort of Organisation would be offered to the people of Wales.
    Are we 3+ million inadequates without the ability to do what Bavarians, Rhinelanders, Tyroleans, Salzburgers, Zuerichers,,Genevans and their brothers & sisters in other self- confident and effective political units,& also the Americans & Canadians,as well as the Australians do quite adequately & with great pleasure and sense of purpose. Decide what should be done with our services, responsibilities & lives in a specific area to which we have great attachment – or for which – even love. Responsibility & power need to be brought closer to the reach & grasp of individual citizens. Dafydd Meurig

  6. ” After all, the best possible case for further change would be past success.”

    By the same logic, the best possible case for abolition would be past (and present) failure!

  7. Phil. Best read my words, not my mind. You misunderstand. This is not about seeking the approval of our neighbour. The fact is that for the foreseeable future Wales will live within the United Kingdom. I have no problem with that, except that I would like it to be a better and fairer union. That is why we need adequate machinery to assist that process, and to counter those in the civil service at the centre who believe that this is still a unitary rather than a union state. The use of such machinery should not distract us in any way from the task of improving our own performance to the maximum extent.

  8. Thank you for engaging with my ideas Geraint.

    I’m afraid that when someone of your reputation and stature publishes an article the reader is naturally inclined to interpret its ‘message’ as much by what is not said as by what is. Unhelpful perhaps, but an innocent mistake nonetheless.

    I do not disagree with anything that you said about better ‘working together’. I simply wonder whether you agree with me that there is a corollary imperative on the Welsh Government to self-consciously develop and enhance its leverage and political capital through the (reasonable) pursuit of self-interest as well, since it is only a combination of the two that will ultimately improve Wales’s influence and subsequent prosperity. You did not talk about this in your original piece and I believe it is a crucial element of any discussion on political ‘influence’.

    Your follow-up statement below suggests that you may concede something along those lines, insofar as “improving our performance” can be interpreted as ‘independent action’, but not quite as explicit as my choice of “pursuing self-interest”. Semantics perhaps, and certainly a Pandora’s box of tangential debate best kept for another day.

    All the best.

    “The use of such machinery should not distract us in any way from the task of improving our own performance to the maximum extent.”

  9. Dafydd Meurig Thomas, the answer to your question is very simple but you may not like it. We libertarians are the strongest supporters of your stated objective – ‘responsibility and power need to be brought closer to the reach and grasp of individual citizens’ – which is precisely why we oppose the centralising, controlling, socialist Welsh Assembly, an entirely superfluous level of government.

    The latest example of the Assembly’s centralising tendency is the proposal by a commission it set up by to enlarge the units of local government. Although there may or may not be an administrative case for doing so with some of the smaller authorities, it cannot be argued that it will bring responsibility and power ‘closer to the reach and grasp of individual citizens.’

  10. As someone quoted several times in the Silk Report as arguing that further devolution should not take place until the performance of the Assembly improves, I was not advocating abolition, merely a standstill situation until the Assembly has proved itself which it obviously hasnt.

    I would take issue with the mitigating circumstances. Firstly, while John Redwood has to carry the can for the botched local government reorganisation in 1996 he was surely strongly influenced by the whisperings of the Labour controlled district councils in Wales who pushed for a unitary system based on the districts not the counties. Secondly, although the pressures on the English NHS are comensurate with those on the Welsh NHS, the performance of the English NHS is demonstrably better as a consequence of more realistic policies and better implementation.

    So exactly how bad does the performance of the Welsh Assembly have to be before we can call stop and wait. What about the recent catastrophic failure in relation to GCSE English examinations which produced a set of results that could not be believed let alone explained. Pupils predicted to get grade A* in English getting grade D or unclassified. Schools where 60% to 70% of the children were expected to get a grade C or better in English getting rates of 27%. Typically the Welsh Government has ordered an enquiry and no doubt there will be endless buck passing taking place but the truth must be that something has gone catastrophically wrong with the implementation of the new examinations to get discrepancies of this magnitude. Fiascos like this are getting increasingly commonplace and demonstrate breathtaking incompetence.

  11. John Winterson Richards: Whilst I empathise with your anarchistic proposition that “responsibility and power need to be brought closer to the reach and grasp of individual citizens” I am not sure that abolishing our Assembly – “an entirely superfluous level of government”, as you opine – would achieve this. If your Utopian ideal of real empowerment and citizenship is to come to fruition, then surely all tiers of government are superfluous – none more so than the waning, anachronistic UK Houses of Parliament. Furthermore, as you are no doubt aware, full and active citizenship can only be acquired through the establishment of a Republic, with a written constitution and Bill of (Citizenship) Rights. As we are all currently subjects of the House of Windsor then this would entail the dissolution of the Crown. On that point we can certainly agree, though, sadly, I envisage some Loyalist Royalists objecting.

  12. Phil, there is a difference between anarchist and libertarian. While anarchism may be superficially attractive as pure theory, it ignores the paradox that, human nature being what it is, some form of government is necessary to protect our freedom. The libertarian position is that there should be as little government as necessary for that purpose and that should be as close to the people as possible.

    Alas, we certainly do not agree about a republic being the best mechanism for such a government. History shows that republics, written constitutions, and bills of rights are poor protectors of freedom in practice. The Weimar Constitution, for example, reads like a Charter 88 Christmas List, but it failed in its basic purpose. The Americans idolise their famous Constitution but set it aside at will. The record of constitutional monarchy – as opposed to absolute monarchy – is much better. Indeed, one of the reasons monarchy grew in the first place was that people appealed to the Royal courts against oppression by local authorities. Although the British monarchy is now in effect titular, there is little doubt that, in an extreme situation, the armed forces would obey the monarch against a demagogic Hitler or Mussolini. Ultimate allegiance to a human being rather than a piece of paper or an abstract concept is freedom’s last and strongest line of defence.

  13. In response to John Winterson Richards I have to say how amused I was by the contradictions in your last post. You advocate libertarianism but then support a constitiutional monarchy. This implies that you would supinely subject yourself to the whims of an unelected head of state, and go to war – i.e. deny other peoples’ human liberty – on his/her command. You also appear to have a bee in your bonnet about the National Assembly but support other institutions – again, not exactly libertarian.

    Finally, you support some forms of ‘government’ because, you contend, we require government protection due to “human nature being what it is”. Again, hardly libertarian. Indeed, your perspective resonates with Hobbesian inclinations and a lack of trust in humankind – the very people who you purportedly wish to liberate.

  14. Good points Mark. You are certainly not the only one who is baffled by JWR’s “thought practices’.

  15. Mark, most of the contradiction is negated by differentiating between the anarchist position of having no government and the libertarian position of having minimal government.

    So we need a government, but we have three – Welsh, UK, and European – two too many.

    On the more interesting broader question, the traditional debate was between Hobbes who advocated authoritarianism because he said human nature is evil and Locke who advocated liberalism because he said Man is good. Yet there is a third position that argues that it is precisely because human nature is evil that no human beings should be entrusted with too much power. This is supported by a mountain of evidence that suggests people are at their worst in collective situations – gangs, mobs, bureaucracies, political parties, etc. So Hobbes is wrong for the right reason and Locke is right for the wrong reason.

    A distinction also needs to be made between democracy and liberty: they often reinforce each other but they are not necessarily the same thing. Many of the nastiest, most intrusive and totalitarian states have been republics, their bureaucrats justifying their interference in the lives of their subjects by claiming it is the “will of the people.” Constitutional monarchies, on the other hand are usually liberal – the UK, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark – perhaps in part because an individual conscience at the top is more understanding of human frailty than a theory.

    Thanks for raising the subject. This is fun.

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