Thank you for the invitation to be here…over the last 20 years there has been a process of incremental but major change in the matrix of relationships right across our islands. That process of change continues and Wales is of course part of that wider picture – and I am encouraged that this is recognized by the British-Irish Association.
Let me start by saying that I am a Labour Minister in a Labour Government – and I am not yet on life support!
As you probably know, one of Wales’s most successful recent exports is Dr Who
So let’s use the Tardis to take us back in time twenty years.
It is 1995, and I am working in London at the heart of Britishness as the BBC’s Head of Public Affairs, looking after relations with the Westminster Parliament and the European Parliament.
That is the European Parliament recently expanded to represent fifteen nations rather than twelve.
That is a Westminster Parliament headed by a Prime Minister who has just called and won a party leadership election in which 89 of his colleagues voted against him.
There is no Scottish Parliament, no Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland and no National Assembly for Wales. Princess Diana has not yet given her Panorama interview to Martin Bashir.
The Joint Communique between the UK and Irish governments on the twin-track process on peace negotiations and decommissioning of weapons is a couple of months away.
Divorce has not yet been approved in Ireland though a referendum is coming up. Jack Charlton is still Ireland’s football manager.
Ireland’s Culture Minister Michael D.Higgins has recently published his Green Paper on Broadcasting –the only Government consultation document I have ever read which quotes the German philosopher and sociologist , Jurgen Habermas. I wonder what Mr Higgins is doing now!
Frank Bruno has just won the WBC World Heavywight Championship. David Trimble will be elected Ulster Unionist Leader in two days time – no doubt an equally pugilistic role.
The Scottish Constitutional Convention’s document, Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right is two months from publication. The SNP has recently won the Perth by-election and the deep-fried Mars Bar has just been invented in Stonehaven.
In Wales, Tower Colliery has been re-opened as a workers’ cooperative. Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers has just disappeared and Neil Kinnock has just resigned from Parliament to become a European Commissioner. Wales were knocked out of the Rugby World Cup after only 3 games following a narrow defeat by Ireland.
Meanwhile Eric Cantona is still suspended after his Kung Fu attack on a Crystal Palace supporter and Denis Bergkamp becomes the most expensive football transfer in British history. At £7.5 million.
Now, does that all feel like a different world to you?
It does to me. The following year, 1996, I got married in Cardiff, left the BBC and returned to Wales to live for the first time since I had left shortly after our referendum defeat in 1979.
I list these things simply to say that in the UK I think we need to take stock. Not to slam on the brakes, but to appreciate how far we have come, and that just maybe, before we find we have set off in different and incompatible directions, having a map of where we want to get to might be helpful. We need a cultural change in Westminster and Whitehall – a move to a New Union mentality away from a centralist mentality which sees Westminster, Whitehall and English practice as the norm and all others as deviant…the UK itself should recognize the profundity of constitutional change post-devolution, post the creation of the Supreme Court, indeed post our joining the European Union in the 1970s…I believe that the notion of traditional Westminster Parliamentary sovereignty is now redundant.
In Wales we wonder sometimes whether Whitehall and Westminster have realized that the constitutional world is different from 1995. The problem, I fear, starts at the top. Whitehall Ministers carry on with their jobs, often without the realization that post devolution there are three kinds of UK Minister
- those with genuinely UK-wide responsibilities such as the Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary
- those with GB responsibilities such as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who have to work through devolved structures in Scotland and Wales if their goals are to be achieved, for example in skills and training
- and finally, those Ministers such as Education and Health who are largely now Ministers for England.
We have heard today the case for Scotland…but how many of us honestly thought it likely, 20 years ago, that the Union would come within a whisker of ending? The landscape in Scotland is, to use a phrase familiar to Irish colleagues in this 150th anniversary year of Yeats’ birth, “changed utterly”. As my party knows better than most.
There is a seeming inability to address constitutional issues in the round. The Vow in the latter part of the Scottish referendum guaranteed the endurance of the Barnett formula, without reference to Wales, Northern Ireland or the English Regions, all of whom were affected. Constitutional issues are addressed on a bilateral basis between, say, Westminster and Scotland or Westminster and Wales, without wider consideration. Some issues are proposed for change without effective advance consideration of the constitutional implications – such as the proposals around reform of the Human Rights Act, which require agreement with both Wales and Scotland. Now my good friend Michael Gove has never been afraid of a fight, but even he I think will find this one a challenge.
There are proposals for a form of English votes for English laws within a single Parliamentary institution, with the Speaker as the final arbiter of what is an England-only bill. I have great confidence in Mr Speaker Bercow, whom I employed for five years from 1988-93, but this means that in Westminster, it is the institution’s Presiding Officer who decides the competence of an England-only Bill, whereas ultimately for Wales it is the Supreme Court which may decide whether a Welsh Bill is within competence. Could the Speaker come into conflict with the Supreme Court? We shall see.
There are proposals for devolution to major cities in England without the requirement for referenda that the people of Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland had to face. So why does Wales have to jump through hoops of referenda and repeated legislation while English regions gain substantial powers at the say-so of the Chancellor of the Exchequer without any meaningful public or parliamentary consultation?
The second chamber, wholly unrepresentative, the largest second chamber in the world outside China, has been expanded yet again. As usual, this only took account of winner-takes-all politics and had no regard for geographical or devolved interests and the long-term shape of the Union. Why should there be an expectation of entitlement to continue in an unelected legislative role just because someone, like Othello, has ‘done the state some service’?
A referendum on our relationship with the European Union is pending – which, as everyone knows, has potential to reek havoc on the UK’s own constitutional balance.
The Wales Bill will be published in draft this autumn. There is agreement in general on a reserved powers model – but there’s a suggestion that Whitehall wants an enormous catalogue of reserved powers – which actually undermines the whole purpose of the model.
The Supreme Court’s judgements in certain areas, notably the Agricultural Wages (Wales) Act and the Bylaws (Wales) Act have already widened the scope of understanding of the post-2011 Welsh devolution settlement.
It would be intolerable and illegitimate – and contrary to the expressed wishes of Welsh voters – if the UK Government were now to try and trim back on powers already held by the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government.
The development of the UK Constitution is a bit like watching a drunk getting dressed in the dark. Nothing seems to fit. And we don’t know where they’ll stumble next.
That is why the First Minister of Wales called, three years ago, for a UK constitutional convention. I believe that such a convention is now the only way to preserve the United Kingdom. I appreciate that is not everyone’s goal, but for those of us who wish to see it preserved, modernized and developed, albeit in something of a looser arrangement, this hell-for-leather slalom needs to stop before some parts fall off.
I see little evidence from the political classes in London that anyone is giving much serious thought to the future shape of the Union. At best, we have an ad hoc jumbled response. Successive UK Governments claim they’d like to see a definitive end to constitutional tinkering. So would I. The only way to achieve that is through a cohesive and comprehensive process looking at all aspects of future UK constitutional practice. The longer we avoid that, the longer we’ll keep tinkering.
Some time after the devolution defeat in the 1979 referendum, the great Welsh historian Gwyn Alf Williams, fulminated that
‘We Welsh look like being the last of the British. There is some logic in this. We were, after all, the first.’ Maybe our nostalgia for the union is based on something deeper than the union of the Crowns and Parliaments. After all, there was a time when a form of Welsh was spoken throughout this island. No doubt it will be surprising to some here to learn that the oldest poem written in what we now call Welsh – Y Gododdin – was actually written in Edinburgh – Caer Edin -about a battle in Yorkshire. So, the oldest poem in Welsh is arguably also Scotland’s oldest poem.
When we look back in twenty years time, will the Scots still be with us? Will the English have tired of all of us? Where will Northern Ireland be? Will it be simply the Welsh who believe in a union bigger than themselves?
Who will join us in making the case for a modern, creative, mutually supportive union of nations?
The UK urgently needs a UK Constitutional Convention – every year lost cedes further ground to nationalists and separatists. It should be open and it should seek to engage people beyond existing legislative institutions.
We are moving towards a system based on popular sovereignty – and the people sometimes show their sovereignty by spectacular indifference to and resentment of elected politicians. The National Assembly was created by a free vote of the Welsh people – narrowly in 1997 but more emphatically in 2011 – and should only be capable of dissolution on the same basis. The Union is a union of 4 nations – let’s be grown up about that and develop a constitution which properly reflects that reality.
Last year Scotland accepted that the United Kingdom was ‘Better Together”. I prefer the slogan of the Football Association of Wales, on the eve of our home game against Israel – ‘Together, Stronger’. But do others still believe that, or care enough to ensure it – or will insular Westminster party games and metropolitan provincialism kill the union?
I think we have a choice. But time is running out.
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