Daran Hill discusses the St David’s Day Pact with praise for the quick turn around and a solid, if uninspiring result.
Wales reached another important milestone in its devolution journey today as details of the cross-party talks, led by the Welsh Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Crabb, were published. Putting aside the fact that the outcome of the St David’s Day Pact is being made public to coincide with the start of the Welsh Conservative and Welsh Liberal Democrat conferences – hardly the most non-partisan time to announce – Crabb should nevertheless be praised for delivering a package so quickly and with so much consensus.
The Silk and Richard Commissions may have produced consensus amongst commissioners and the Cardiff Bay Bubble, but that consensus ended there. What Crabb has led is a consensus between political parties, and that is in stark contrast to the way in which devolution settlements have been developed for Wales in the past.
However, as with any party political consensus, it has been drawn at the lowest common denominator. In order to reach a consensus in the cross-party talks, all parties had a veto during discussions, a power that one would easily imagine that the Conservatives and Labour used to oppose the devolution of certain areas to Cardiff Bay. That’s why we don’t see policing and criminal justice as part of the package.
In terms of the things that are to be devolved regardless, it is therefore a solid but uninspiring list – energy production up to 350MW, significant changes to the “jagged edge” of transport responsibilities, and the Assembly will finally have control of its own election processes. Perhaps it is this sparsity which makes it so apt this is being done on St David’s Day. After all, our patron saint did commend the people “Gwnewch y pethau bychain”, which translates as “Do the small things.”
Naturally, both Plaid and the Lib Dems would have liked it to have gone further in different ways. But imaging this package would have brought an extra £1.2bn to Wales is the way that Plaid was demanding was simply tilting at windmills.
It is important to keep a sense of perspective. The St David’s Pact package is all about what is there, not what is not. It is better to look at it as a cup half full because, beyond the purely functional aspects of additional devolution responsibilities, are some much bigger commitments. The removal of the Secretary of State for Wales from the Assembly’s processes is a long overdue action and will probably help strengthen the case for the post’s abolition in a few months time. There is also a pledge to give the Assembly the powers to rename itself in the future, perhaps as a Parliament, perhaps as a Senate, perhaps as the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet. But the key thing is that the power of self designation is being conferred.
Further, the Assembly will get powers to expand its numbers following an alleged “consensus” around the need for such a move. Whether that consensus is bigger than the Bay Bubble remains a moot point. Anyone fancy taking that one to a referendum? Because, of course, a referendum is promised in this deal around moving income tax powers to Wales too. Don’t expect that one too early either. Despite the pressure being exerted by the Conservatives, everyone else knows that one can’t be won on the doorstep any time soon.
In conclusion, it was an ambitious objective by the Secretary of State for Wales to try and settle the devolution question. What the package does is not so much draw a line in the sand but to define where the debates of the next five years will be. They won’t be over devolving additional powers like policing and criminal justice. The debates of the next five years will be around if and when a tax powers referendum is held, what the Assembly should name itself, and how many toga clad senators might sit there in future.
Listen to Daran’s reaction to the announcement below: