Dear Rowan, dear Laura

April 8, 2022 0 Comments

What sort of country do we want Wales to be in future? 

Rowan Williams and Laura McAllister have recently invited us to answer that question.  They are the joint chairs of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, a group set up in 2021 by the Welsh Government to come up with options for the future government of Wales and for strengthening democracy in general.

Here’s my attempt to respond to the specific questions they pose.

1 What matters to you about the way Wales is run?

I should like Wales to be a country: 

> that respects human and democratic rights – not one that passes laws to remove rights, and ignores checks and balances restraining executive power

> in which government is honest, accountable, and dedicated to serving the interests of all the people – not one that relies on deceit and corruption to sustain itself in power, and rules mainly for the benefit of the privileged

> that aims to reduce the massive economic and social inequalities that disfigure our country – not allowing them to increase without restraint by reducing support for the powerless and allowing the rich to escape their social obligations

> that takes real steps to reverse degradation of our environment and species loss – not paying lip-service to what needs doing, and then carrying on much as before

> that values the public sphere and public services as collective goods from which everyone can benefit – not disparaging and diminishing them at every turn, and instead enriching unworthy private interests

> where the economy is designed to help people and the planet – not to line the pockets of the few (the real meaning of ‘financial services’), or to aim for limitless, unsustainable ‘growth’.

Your question, by the way, is oddly phrased.  ‘The way Wales is run’ suggests that Wales is in some way ‘administered’, by a separate class of ‘managers’, on behalf of the people.  Instead, I suggest, we should aim for a more inclusive polity, where ordinary people take as much responsibility as they can for their collective future – rather than being ‘run’ by others (see section 6 below)

2 What do you think the priorities for the commission should be?

Do your best to stir up as much discussion as you can, in all parts of Wales and among all sorts of people, about what kind of country we want Wales to be.

Wales is decades behind Scotland in the maturity of its public debate on its own future.  From 1989 the Scottish Constitutional Convention began its work of mobilising discussion about the future of Scotland, among not just political parties, but in all parts of civil society.  In Wales we’ve never had a serious attempt to engage a whole population in debating our own future.  If the Commission is serious about its work, it has to make sure that as many people as possible take part.

(If you adopt this approach, I’d suggest you abbreviate (or drop) your official title (Independent Commission …), which will send most people to sleep. Adopt a snappier one.)

3 Thinking about how Wales is governed, by the Welsh Government and the UK government, what are the strengths of the current system, what aspects do you most value and wish to protect? Can you provide examples?

The passing of some powers from London to Cardiff since 1999 has helped Wales.

Decisions in important areas that affect Welsh people are taken here, by our own elected representatives, rather than by distant politicians who, more often than not, hold no popular mandate in Wales.  

Devolution has allowed Wales to choose its own policy paths.  They’re often different from, and usually better than, those take in England.  We’ve mainly avoided privatising our NHS provision.  Our schools system has not been splintered into academies, free schools, grammar schools and private schools.  In our response to Covid we’ve avoided many of the more reckless decisions taken by the government in England.

These powers are valuable.  We should defend them.  Especially when they come under attack from the UK government.  An example: the Welsh government used to make decisions on EU capital spending (the ‘structural funds’).  Now the (much reduced) replacement funds are firmly under the control of Westminster, and the Welsh government has been by-passed.  This theft of power shows how fragile devolved powers can be.

4 Are there any problems with the current system, and if so, how could they be addressed? Again, please provide examples.

It isn’t a ‘system’.  A system can be justified.  It’s impossible to justify why some powers have been devolved to Wales and others have not.  Why are media policy and funding undevolved?  What about the legal system and policing?  Why are the tax-raising powers of the Welsh government so severely limited?  Could we not make a better job of devising a social security system than the UK government?  Most people would like Wales to welcome refugees from areas of world conflict: why does the Welsh government lack the ability to admit them?  The list could be extended almost indefinitely.

5 Thinking about the UK government, the Welsh Government and Welsh local government (your local council), what do you think about the balance of power and responsibility between these 3 types of government – is it about right or should it change and if so, how? For example, who should have more power, or less?

The ‘balance of power and responsibility’ between the UK and Welsh governments is faulty.  It needs to be changed, radically and urgently.

6 As a distinct country and political unit, how should Wales be governed in the future? Should we:

  • broadly keep the current arrangements where Wales is governed as part of the UK, and the Westminster Parliament delegates some responsibilities to the Senedd and Welsh Government, with those responsibilities adjusted as in Q5, OR
  • move towards Wales having more autonomy to decide for itself within a more federal UK, with most matters decided by the Senedd and Welsh Government, and the Westminster Parliament decides UK-wide matters on behalf of Wales (and other parts of the UK) OR
  • move towards Wales having full control to govern itself and be independent from the UK OR
  • pursue any other governance model you would like to suggest

I used to be a devolutionist – a developmental devolutionist.  I used to believe that Wales (and Scotland) should be granted more powers, step by step, gradually over the years, so that eventually the UK government was left with those responsibilities that everyone agreed had to remain centralised in any ‘united’ Kingdom.

I no longer think that this is a tenable position.

I cannot believe that the current devolution settlement, or even an enhanced one, will achieve, or coming anywhere close to achieving, the kind of just and progressive society outlined in section 1 above. 

The current UK government has little or no interest in working towards such a society.  In fact, so incompetent and corrupt is the Johnson kakistocracy that it’s difficult to imagine any constructive sharing of power between the two governments while it remains in power.

What’s more, so entrenched is reactionary politics in the UK, and specifically England, by far its largest part, that we’re very unlikely, at least in my lifetime, to see any kind of UK government that might share a Welsh government’s vision for a just and progressive country.  Future UK governments, given the electoral system, media bias and a permanently changed Scotland, will continue to favour the status quo.  Even if a non-Conservative were to come to power, probably through some kind of coalition agreement, all the evidence suggests that it would be too weak and timid to do more than scratch the surface of the challenges listed in section 1 above.

The only option, if we’re to have any chance of a radically better future here, is for Wales to become politically independent, and for us to begin to forge a future for ourselves outside the framework of the UK constitution.

This path will be difficult.  Many more people in Wales will need to be convinced.  They will need to feel confident enough that Wales can build a future for itself.  There will be disruption and challenge in making the transition to a new state.

But as an independent country we would have as many powers and resources at our disposal as a state can have in a globalised economy.  With them we can begin building a much better place to live in.  Wales has for long had a majority in favour of a progressive politics.  Freed from the UK, it has a chance to put that politics into action, across the whole spectrum of government responsibilities.

There would be other new opportunities.  For example, an independent Wales might decide to rejoin the European Union, a move that would almost certainly be in its economic interests.  An independent Wales could replace the monarchy, a potent symbol of the divisive English class system, with an Irish-style elected presidency.

Alongside any of these options, should more responsibilities be given to local councils bringing decision making closer to people across Wales and if so, please provide examples.

There are two main problems with local government in Wales.   First, many of them have become remote from the people they serve.  As local media have shrivelled, their decisions are largely unscrutinised, and some of them behaviour like party fiefdoms, unwilling to listen to their citizens, except through formal consultation.  Second, they have lost funds and agency to carry out the range of duties they once did.  Yet many are unwilling to engage with other bodies and individuals as active partners, rather than as voiceless recipients of decisions and services.

Instead, local authorities should be encouraged to experiment with more open and inclusive ways of gathering, sharing and making opinion.  Examples of such civic participation are citizen assemblies or panels, town meetings, even the use of lot to ensure fair representation.  An ideal focus for such action would be responding collaboratively to the climate crisis at a local level.

7 Overall, what is most important to you about the way in which Wales should be governed in the future? Is there anything else you want to tell us?

Independence would give a chance for Wales to become a more democratic society. 

First, we should be rid of the powerful anti-democratic elements in the UK constitution, such as the first-past-the post electoral system, the executive’s use of the royal prerogative, and the unelected House of Lords – along with all the fusty, antiquated furniture of parliamentary and government ritual that has no place in a modern state.

Second, we could plan our own ways of organising ourselves towards what the editors of the collection Welsh [plural] term an ‘inclusive yet distinctive’ society, with democratic structures to match.

8 In responding to these questions, we would welcome views on how the current forms of governance, and any proposals to change governance in the future, might impact on the Welsh language.

Whether the Welsh language will flourish in future will depend on, first, policy and funding by governments and other bodies, and second, and more important, innumerable individual decisions taken by communities, local organisations, businesses and families.  The former is already a devolved responsibility.  My experience with the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, suggests that well-directed policy and funding can yield considerable success – which is not to say that more could not be done (bring back Bwrdd yr Iaith Gymraeg!).

The case of the Republic of Ireland shows that political independence does not guarantee a bright future for a minority language.  But what independence could bring is a cultural change, a general renewal of self-confidence, that could stimulate the use of the Welsh language by many, and increase its value to all.

Responses to the Commission’s questions need to be submitted by the end of July 2022.

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