Wales is the one part of the United Kingdom that finds its stable position under all-round devolution in which it sits, without serious support for independence, alongside Scotland and Northern Ireland in balance with the UK centre. Today’s announcement on the cross-party talks process marks a further example of how, since 1999, Wales has picked up the pace-setting on devolution set by Scotland. As the UK lacks any settled territorial constitutional theory, the boundaries of acceptable devolution are set pragmatically by what UK parties concede to the one nation with the political and economic heft to become independent - Scotland.
Even before devolution was implemented, Wales moved towards the separation of legislature and executive that Scotland inherited from Westminster, and after twelve years of debate full law-making powers were secured. Wales even got in first in using the Government name for its executive branch, and generally in the ‘flags around the table’ stakes Wales is a full player. The words ‘parity’ and ‘alignment’ are widely used. Today’s promise of a reserved powers model is a further progression, as is the crucial proposed power for the Assembly to control the way it is constituted and elected.
The pace of constitutional evolution in Wales has been remarkable. Wales has had two new devolution laws (the Government of Wales Act 2006 and the Wales Act 2014) that allowed assorted provisions to be inserted (or even put into reverse, as with the ability to stand for both a constituency and a regional list). It also had a profusion of devolution commissions (Richard, Holtham, Jones Parry, Silk I and Silk II) that have inevitably tugged Wales along the Scottish road. The approach in today’s paper finally gives up on incremental changes to the 1998 settlement in favour of letting Wales occupy the devolved space staked out by Scotland and Northern Ireland, but in terms of taxes and benefits only up to the point reached before the Smith Commission’s recommendations in November 2014.
The latest announcement burnishes the Welsh Conservatives’ credentials as a positive force on devolution and further buries anti-devolution as a serious political force in Wales. The key political driver in both Wales and Scotland is the leaping by the Conservatives over other parties in the direction of devolved rights and responsibilities for nations where they have never been in devolved government. From trying to halt devolution at whatever point it has reached, the Conservatives now posit an active and powerful system that is given what it asks for and has no one to blame but itself.
But, with continuing low turnouts in Welsh elections and referendums, real political consent for this approach is hard to achieve. Today, the UK government has been forced to accept the elision of the link between a referendum on tax powers and a minimum relative funding floor from a precondition to an expectation. The tension between a force-feeding of more devolution and the ‘best of both worlds’ no risk approach remains.
What might be the limits to Wales’s constitutional journey? Part of Conservatives’ thinking is that the Anglo-Welsh border is so permeable and economically integrated that independence is simply impossible. The slope of constitutional development is not slippery; England and Wales as a policy entity exists in a way that England and Scotland does not. This perspective made Conservatives feel that the Smith Commission had only limited read-across and so could be bold in relation to Scottish devolutionary aspirations. Even then there was tension, with UK ministers getting colder and colder feet about the repercussions on the UK tax and benefit systems of proposals that the Scottish Conservatives themselves had put in play in the Smith process.
But in the light of experience can we be sure about today’s rhetoric of a ‘lasting settlement’ that ‘stands the test of time’? Years of institutional development naturally reinforce confidence within the Welsh Government about their nation’s identity, cohesion, borders and capacity to take on new functions. Most of the Smith proposals for Scotland, the new devolved policy space accepted by UK parties as consistent with a stable Union, remain for Wales to occupy. The alleged phrase of the Welsh official, in the context of Scottish independence, that ‘we do not want to be Montenegro to England’s Serbia’ makes sense – but Montenegro has become independent.
Richard Parry is Honorary Fellow in the Centre on Constitutional Change, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. With colleagues Jan Eichhorn, Daniel Kenealy and Lindsay Paterson he is currently conducting an ESRC-funded project on public and elite engagement with how the UK is governed after the Scottish referendum.