Emergence of a Welsh political system

Charlie Jeffery says that following last week’s referendum Wales will have to become more self-reliant

Charlie Jeffrey is Professor of Politics at Edinburgh University

Last week’s referendum was a landmark event in the process of building Wales’ constitution. The vote signed off as spot on the critiques made in the internal review of procedure in the first term of the National Assembly and in Ivor Richard’s seminal report that advocated legislative powers in 2004.

The two-thirds vote dismissed as inadequate and unfit for purpose the complex interdependencies with Westminster that bedevilled the initial variant of devolution and its successor form in the 2006 Government of Wales Act. The dismissal of that complex interdependence with Westminster in favour of autonomous law-making in 20 fields of public policy signals a robust commitment among the Welsh to seek home-grown solutions to the policy challenges that face Wales. It signals a belief that Westminster is not an appropriate forum for dealing with those challenges.

All in all the referendum result was a remarkable statement of confidence in consolidating a Welsh political system. But it was also a statement that is double-edged. If you remove Westminster from those 20 fields of public policy in Wales, then Wales will become even more marginal to the Westminster bubble. Politics in Wales will become even more compartmentalised from politics in Westminster.

I see the Presiding Officer’s calls for the abolition of the position of Secretary of State for Wales as entirely right and logical in this context. After the referendum, and without the role in linking Welsh legislative process in Cardiff and Westminster, it is a non-job, just as the Secretary of State for Scotland has for years been a non-job.

The corollary of all this – the other edge of a double-edged sword if you like – is that Wales has to become more self-reliant. If Wales is marginal in Westminster, then Westminster will from time to time do things – like the near wholesale withdrawal of state funding for tuition in English universities – that have tremendous knock-on effects in Wales, without feeling a need to consult anyone in Wales about the policy and its effects. Get used to it.

Likewise, if Wales has its own political system producing home-grown policy solutions, it would not be wise to expect much recognition in Westminster of arguments about ‘fair funding’, however well-grounded they might appear. Indeed, we know from survey work on English political attitudes that the English think by a big majority that the Scots should themselves levy the taxes to finance the policies of the Scottish Parliament, and that the Scots currently get more than their fair share of UK public funding.

So do many MPs, across all the major British parties. Expect the same kind of attitude for Wales. Expect more movement in the coming years on the Holtham Commission’s recommendations on fiscal autonomy than those on ‘fair funding’. Expect to hear refrains to the effect of, “Well done on the referendum, but you’re on your own now, hope it goes well”. That, I think, is the political logic of the UK’s multi-level state.

However, I think this is a logic that can and should be embraced. It places an enormous challenge on the National Assembly, not least in making sure that logic is understood across the regions, by the local authorities, by the main interest groups, by the electorate. Self-reliance means making tough decisions, and those who lose out will complain.

But the centrifugal and compartmentalised logic of the UK’s multi-level state also presents a powerful opportunity. Wales can now to mark out what is important to it. The opportunity is there to generate Welsh answers to Welsh questions. It is an opportunity for the people of Wales and their representatives to define just what kind of political system Wales should have, what values it should embody, and what outcomes it should pursue. That is a rare opportunity. I look forward to seeing Wales and its National Assembly take it.

This is an extract from the Welsh Governance Centre’s St David’s Day lecture he delivered at the Senedd’s Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay earlier this week. The full text is available here.

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