Part One: Devolution? Federalism? Why Independence is the Answer

In the first of a two part essay, Dr John Ball examines the journey to a devolved Wales and sets out why the current settlement is inadequate.

This essay is the first of two parts. You can read the second part here.


There is no question that Wales’ political future and place in the world has never been in a greater state of flux.

There are three alternatives: the current status quo, some form of federal UK, or – as more and more see the future – independence.

Strangely enough, in my view, the status quo is not an option.

The current Conservative government is keen on the “union” which is partisan speak for reducing devolution, whilst supporters of devolution see a painstakingly slow growth in current powers.

The recent series of articles by Cennydd Glyndwr Jones was a timely and thought-provoking approach to the second alternative.

There are federal rumblings from the Labour Party, some Welsh Tories and – no matter how it’s dressed – Plaid Cymru’s recent independence road map is currently, as I’ve argued previously, only an argument for federalism.

This sudden enthusiasm, of course, is a response to the third alternative of independence. The questions need to be addressed; how long, and indeed, how genuine is this enthusiasm for federalism going to last?

And indeed, what exactly is the federal alternative?

The Senedd has transport powers over roads and some powers over train operation – but no control over train operators or tracks.”

Presumably, the snail speed at which any form of democracy has been de-centralised within the UK arises from that celebrated adage “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” – not incidentally, a quote by Churchill.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, devolution is “the delegation of power by central government to local or regional administration,”.

Or further defined (and in an unintended description of the snail’s pace of such an activity within the UK state), “descent or passing on through a series of stages.”

History clearly illustrates the reluctance of central government in the UK to devolve power; local government powers have been a long journey from the Reform Act of 1832 and the Local Government Acts of the nineteenth century, all grudgingly granting more powers, right up to the twentieth century meddling acts.

The UK Government continues to remain the ultimate source both of power and purse strings.

Devolution to the “regions” has an equally unhurried history.

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In 1886, the Chamberlain “Home Rule all round” cry went largely unheeded by the centre, although “Home Rule” movements in the (then) constituent nations of the UK arguably began in earnest during this time. 

The 1873 Home Rule League in Ireland (and other organisations) led to the subsequent unsuccessful Home Rule Bills. Significantly, the loss of these Bills and the armed rebellion that followed led to the one significant piece of devolved legislation that suited the centre.

The 1920 Home Rule Act locked the North of Ireland within the grasp of the centre so successfully that in practice the province remained firmly a part of the UK.

In Wales, the founding of Cymru Fydd in 1886 similarly sought “Home Rule,” although both Welsh and Irish movements sought limited devolved powers. 

However, the central government was not against limited devolved powers.

The 1881 Sunday Closing Act and the 1914 Welsh Churches Act did reluctantly recognise, so far as Wales is concerned, differences with the UK, although support for S O Davies’ Home Rule Bill in 1955 was clearly a step too far. 

However, in Wales the desire for some sort of national recognition remained – if in a limited form – and was recognised in 1964 with the establishment of the Welsh Office and Secretary of State – though with limited administrative power.

Devolution

Any form of devolution retains power in the centre. The history of devolution in Wales illustrates its weaknesses, especially within the UK; a state culturally, historically and philosophically centralised.

The original Enabling Act which established the Assembly was essentially a conferred powers system, limiting its powers to those of the Welsh Office which it replaced.

This was amended after almost two decades to a reserved powers model that clarified which powers lay with the Assembly, and which did not. Further legislation allowed limited legislative and tax raising powers.     

The result is confusion.

As presently constituted, devolution within the UK is piecemeal and erratic with the three constituent nations having different powers.

Powers that prima facie, appear to be more localised, are divided. 

The Senedd, for example, has transport powers over roads and some powers over train operation – but no control over train operators or tracks.

“Devolution as presently constituted across the nations of the UK is inconsistent, in many ways illogical, and almost certainly unsustainable.”

Similarly, despite having a statutory duty to protect the environment, it lacks powers over planning and operational issues involving green energy.

There is no control over the police or any form of judicial difference. These powers – and others – differ between the devolved administrations of the UK.

A major responsibility of the devolved administrations is economic development but without full, appropriate powers this remains a real weakness.

Assistance with loans, grants and business services are clear duties of the Senedd but have limited scope.

Devolved taxation powers are confused and limited to some influence over income tax and minor taxes; and these powers also differ between the devolved administrations (as do borrowing powers).

 The lack of ability to set (other) even minor taxes is illustrated with Air Passenger Duty.

Requests to devolve it to the Senedd was refused by the UK Government on the basis that it would provide unfair competition with an English airport. 

Any tax revenue raised from these sources is offset against the annually awarded block grant, further illustrating the reluctance of the centre to ease political and financial control.

Fundamentally, there is no overarching macroeconomic policy and no powers to operate such a course of action.

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Fiscal and monetary policy; the ability to use or amend taxes (both personal and business), issue currency, amend interest rates, raise further or international finance, exchange rates and balance of payments all of which are instruments of economic policy, remain with the central government.

In summary, devolution as presently constituted across the nations of the UK is inconsistent, in many ways illogical, and almost certainly unsustainable.

Devolution as currently structured, has clearly not worked. An alternative is some form of federalism, but what sort?

The promoters of federalism have simply not presented a cogent argument because all the promoted schemes differ in approach and none address the real issues.

In the second part of my essay I will examine federalism and confederalism in its different forms and set out why independence is the only course of action that gives Wales the powers to address the long-standing structural issues present in this country.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.


This essay is the first of two parts. You can read the second part here.

Dr. John Ball is former lecturer in economics at Swansea University.

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