Paul Silk introduces the Act of Union Bill and sets out what it could mean for Wales
On the morning of 26 November, Peter Hain and I will be speaking at the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University about the Constitutional Reform Group (CRG) and about the Act of Union Bill, drafted by the CRG, that has been introduced in the House of Lords by Robert Lisvane. The Bill forms a sort of manifesto for the constitutional change that the CRG thinks is both necessary and inevitable. The Bill is an exciting step for a constitutional anorak like me, but we want to engage as widely as we can about the ideas we are putting forward.
First, something about our Group. The CRG was an idea conceived by Robert Salisbury, the scion of one of the country’s greatest political families and himself a former Conservative Cabinet Minister. Robert Salisbury chairs a Steering Group made up of senior politicians from Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Ulster Unionist parties (including from Wales Peter Hain and David Melding), as well as a few former officials and others (including Robert Lisvane and me, as well as Daniel Greenberg, an accomplished parliamentary draftsperson who knows Wales well). We also have a wider group of correspondents who bring in, for example, financial knowledge, like Gerald Holtham, or expertise in law, like Thomas Watkin and Rick Rawlings. Alex Carlile is a patron. Our website is http://www.constitutionreformgroup.co.uk.
Why am I excited about the Bill?
We all know about Wales’s juddering devolution journey. We decisively rejected devolution in 1979. When we just agreed to it in 1997, the model we were given was ill-thought through (we had had no Constitutional Convention), and has needed frequent revision. There have been four Acts of Parliament since 1997 governing Wales, contrasting with a single Scotland Act. And, despite the rather naïve wishful thinking of the Commission on Devolution in Wales that I chaired between 2011 and 2014, that devolution journey shows no sign of coming to an end – Lord Thomas’s distinguished Commission is presently considering the devolution of the justice system to Wales.
Of course, there are those in Wales who want independence. But independence is going to remain a much more difficult sell in Wales than it is in Scotland for two main reasons. We are economically much weaker – something that Plaid Cymru reasonably argues need not be the case, but simply is a fact for the foreseeable future. And we are more interlinked with England – in north-east Wales particularly, but also in the south-east (we also have seen, certainly in mid-Wales, evidence of “white flight” from urban England): our border with England is much more porous than the Scottish border. But even if independence is unlikely, for me it is also important that the Union is a voluntary Union. So the Bill makes it clear that Wales can decide to become independent, and that it would be a decision of the Parliament of Wales and of the people of Wales, and them alone, to break our link with the Union.
If people do not support independence, opinion poll after opinion poll shows that they support devolution. The reason for this is obvious to me. As JH Elliot argues it in his masterly book Scots and Catalans, in the last years of the last century, “highly bureaucratised central governments had become too remote to understand the true needs and problems of the governed”. In Wales that was certainly true – and, with our less extensive devolved model, it remains true: what appears a rational decision in London, say, to reorganise the court structure, will seem nonsensical in Llangefni.
But the devolution settlement is ragged, piecemeal and inconsistent in Wales, and across the UK. Our Bill is an attempt to introduce order, consistency, equality and principle across what is becoming a federalised country. It will reserve to Westminster some central areas – defence, foreign affairs and so on. But these reserved areas will be far less extensive than what is currently reserved. Under the Bill, the Welsh Parliament will have full control in all areas within its responsibilities, and Wales will be put on the same terms as Scotland (Scotland’s powers will be increased substantially, too). There will be separate High Courts for Wales and for England – an essential part of the creation of a distinct Welsh legal jurisdiction; and the proposals for a UK Funding Committee contained in the Bill could be expected to result in a fairer method of financial redistribution within the Union than the Barnett formula has done. So the Bill delivers all that the Commission on Devolution wanted and more. That is why I am so pleased to be involved with its promulgation.
It is the CRG’s view that the possibility of the rupture of the Union makes it imperative to redesign the United Kingdom so that the countries of the United Kingdom want to remain in union. The reunification of Ireland and the independence of Scotland, both made more likely by Brexit, could leave Wales in a very uncomfortable position, and that from a Welsh viewpoint is a powerful reason to make the Union more attractive to the Scots and to the people of Northern Ireland.
Our Bill describes a United Kingdom where the nations come together because they want to do so. The Bill is lengthy and ambitious, but it remains work in progress. We do not claim to have answered every question, or even to have answered the questions we have asked correctly. Please come along on 26 November and tell us what you think.
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