The future of the UK?

The future of the UK is being dealt with in an ad hoc manner says the IWA’s Constitutional Convention

The final phase of discussion for the IWA’s Constitutional Convention looked at the future of the UK, in particular England, Federalism, Europe and devolution in Wales.

It found growing nervousness has emerged around the ‘ad hoc’ way powers are being devolved in England. The call for English devolution has been gaining momentum as more powers are announced for both Scotland and Wales. Manchester was given £1bn of public spending which their new mayor will control and £6bn NHS budget.

Prof Richard Wyn Jones, director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, argued that political parties, particularly unionist parties, had failed to come up with a coherent ‘vision’ for England. In a podcast for the IWA convention, he said that in the case of English Votes for English Laws there had been a recognition of England as a unit at Westminster but ideas for city regions lacked wide public support, he said.

“Within England we have the parties with competing views of what should happen and the coalition government announcing stuff willy nilly which is really far reaching with no public support for what is suggested. It is very much an elite political construct. It all looks pretty incoherent really. No-one is learning anything from the Welsh lesson about what happens when you have an incoherent settlement. I see a very very strong case for decentralising power within England. However if you believe in that, the most dangerous thing you can do is hold it up in opposition to recognising England as a unit. That is going to tar decentralisation with a kind of anti-English brush.”

Neil McEvoy told the convention: “More power to the countries of UK, Cities, Local government and regions are needed. The UK is still horribly centralised and England excessively and damagingly. However, the present devolution debate and activity is chaotic, haphazard and ill thought through. Seems to be driven by events,hunches and electioneering. We need to have a much deeper national constitutional conversation including citizenry, business, unions.”

Katie Hose, Chief Executive of the The Electoral Reforms Society responded : “ERS and many others are campaigning for a UK-wide constitutional convention – led by citizens and involving elected representatives. I Completely agree with need for deeper, national conversation.”

Yet, despite the agreement on the ad hoc nature so far of devolution to England, some contributors raised the point that Wales is still a very centralised nation. Nick Webb said: “I appreciate the statements above about how centralised England is, but I’d argue Wales is even more so. We’ve had no Localism Act, no Neighbourhood Planning or Right to Challenge to Run Services, no ability for parents to establish a free school. Whatever one’s view of the policies there has been a considerable shift of power from Westminster to communities which is not happening in Wales.”

It has been 16 years since the creation of the National Assembly for Wales, when Ron Davies, former Welsh Secretary, described devolution as a ‘process, not an event’. So, has the process of devolution worked or is it too soon to tell?

Rhobat Bryn Jones told the convention: “If we are asking the question what is Welsh Government for, then first and foremost there has to be an improvement in economic performance. The Government has undertaken various initiatives which have borne fruit but there is a general feeling that there is an absence of strategy.”

Eilian Williams said via Facebook: “By now every organisation or body has a Welsh policy- focussed on life here in Wales and that is rapidly fostering a sense of being part of a Welsh civic society. There are policy shortcomings as far as the Assembly Government is concerned, but that applies to every government and financial constraints are a burden we are currently forced to endure! But it is bringing what was a divided nation together!”

Swansea East AM Mike Hedges said: “Overall, as in any democracy, there have been successes and failures; also we cannot know what would have happened if we had not had devolution.“The challenge is to grow the economy throughout Wales not just in small parts of it.”

Eos Pengwern argued: “I run a technology business in Wales which is hard going, both because of the country’s poor image with investors and the confused and unhelpful nature of Welsh Government business support since the WDA was abolished – but I live over the border, with the much better quality of the schools in my area being a significant reason. In Ireland it took about 60 years after home rule for the country to shake off its baggage and start making something of itself.”

There was also some support for a federal UK and concern over the potential impact on Wales of in-out referendum on membership of the EU, which provoked a lively online discussion. Our online poll asked would Wales be better off outside the EU? with 15% of those taking part saying yes and 85% no.

If a majority of voters in Wales and Scotland vote to stay in, but a majority of English voters opt to leave would that boost support for Scottish and Welsh independence?

Rhobat Bryn Jones said: “I think we know what will happen in Scotland. It will trigger a new independence referendum which the Scottish Government believes it can win.” Peter Cox said: “It’s entirely plausible that Wales and Scotland would have majorities against leaving the EU. What basis would a UK wide vote to leave have?

Derek Vaughan MEP said: “[I’m] not saying there would be a rush for independence if UK left EU but it would increase the feeling of isolation and despair which could in turn lead to calls for much greater devolution. This is especially the case when the funding for infrastructure and training schemes dries up and major companies pull out.”

Within all of the elements of this theme, it was clear that contributors felt that there had not been much cohesive thought about the role of the UK and its future as a union of four nations. Many felt issues that have come to the fore; devolution in England and further devolution plus discussion around a referendum on Europe, have been reactionary rather than thought through with the future of the UK in mind.

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