The May government cannot be trusted on devolution
To state the obvious, if enough Scottish voters want Scotland to leave the United Kingdom, it will happen sooner or (more likely) later. What once seemed fanciful seems now entirely possible.
Let’s be clear: this would be bad for the United Kingdom. Scotland makes an enormous contribution to the UK and is a strong ally in democratising the way the UK works. We must do all we can to keep Scotland in our family of nations. We will all be worse off if we don’t succeed in that.
A United Kingdom without Scotland raises questions for Wales, and for the Labour Party.
We failed to see the signs in many communities, over many years of deep discontent with the European Union and the globalised, mobile world it represents. We cannot now afford to ignore the challenges which the prospect of a Scottish departure poses.
Where does this leave Wales?
Nationalism in Wales is a timid beast. Bumping along in the polls at around 10 per cent, the core vote for independence is small and, even if Scotland were to leave, a recent poll suggests that this would not change very much. But let’s not assume that a Great Britain which comprises only England and Wales isn’t going to change the political dynamics.
Theresa May’s government is not committed to devolution. The way they defied the Welsh Government and the House of Lords over the Wales Act gives us a clue, but just watch the negotiations over the ‘repatriation’ — from the EU of powers in devolved areas — to see this government’s centralising instincts. And with five million fewer beneficiaries of devolution if Scotland were to leave, they would hardly become more committed to it.
Our ability to run our own affairs in devolved areas cannot depend on the whim of the UK Government.
Take the economy. For most people, their overriding concern is the chance of a decent job and a reasonable standard of living. So our test should be: what is the balance of powers that gives Wales the best chance of strengthening its economy and which gives most people a good chance of a decent living.
To conclude its trade deal with the EU, Canada needed the approval of its provinces. Trade relationships are not about Crown prerogative and signing treaties, they are about shaping the economy, shaping the chance people have of a decent living — and Canada’s provinces were indispensable partners in that. Just as Wales and the other devolved nations are indispensable partners within the UK.
This kind of federalism may not work in as imbalanced a state as the UK, but the current devolution settlement is inadequate and unsustainable, and simply tacking on policing, bus regulation and a few other areas, is not going to get us anywhere near what’s required.
We need proper rules for the four constituent parts of the UK to agree, as equal partners, how to regulate issues like the environment and agriculture, when EU rules fall away. And we need the sorts of powers which would enable us properly to develop our economy through taxation: tax credits for research and development, some corporation tax powers to support industry in strategic areas.
As well as powers, we now need to put our funding on a proper statutory footing — a law which guarantees fair funding to all parts of the UK, enshrining the principle of equitable redistribution based upon need and taking the final discretion out of the hands of the Treasury.
But in the meantime, we need to build on the support for devolution by showing the results it can deliver now. This means being bold in ditching approaches which haven’t worked and the Welsh Government being as creative and visionary as it has ever been.
Where does that leave the Labour party?
The Labour party is a unionist party. But we cannot ignore the dynamics of Scotland potentially leaving the UK. Calls for the party to ‘split in two’ are a fundamental misreading of the situation. We need to reorganise Labour so that it is better able to separately reflect and serve each of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, while recognising that our UK-wide bonds give us strength.
In Wales we have managed that more successfully than in other parts of the UK. Welsh Labour has done well because we appealed to people who wanted Wales to have a greater say in its own affairs, while remaining in the UK.
But the time has come for us to go further. Welsh Labour, recently acquiring powers to re-write its rules, is updating its constitution to properly reflect how its distinct institutions have developed in recent years.
But we now need a fresh look at making our constitution fit for the future and a good place to start is by having our own Aims and Objectives clause which properly describes what a modern, distinctively Welsh Labour party — as part of the UK Labour family — is about.
We need a debate within the party — members, local parties, trade unions, affiliates, elected representatives — to agree how we can reframe our purposes and objectives as a distinctly Welsh Labour party in a changing UK. We should also reaffirm that the Welsh Labour party is not the party of the Assembly, but is also the party of our members, our councillors, and our Parliamentarians – that our MPs are in part, the custodians of the Welsh national interest in the House of Commons.
And whether or not there is a distinctly Welsh view on matters of policy isn’t governed by whether that policy area happens to be devolved; it is the product of the political values of the Labour movement in Wales. So we should also develop policy on a Welsh Labour-wide basis not just for currently devolved matters, but also on trade union rights and employment, on tax, on justice.
A Labour Party reimagined in this way will help us secure the kind of United Kingdom we aspire to be — radically decentralised, redistributive, and strengthened in its unity as a result.
Jeremy Miles AM is the Assembly Member for Neath, and is speaking at the Welsh Fabians fringe at Welsh Labour Conference on 25 March on Labour’s Future In Wales.
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