Until recently, the United Kingdom has been one of the most centralised states in the industrial world. Under the last Labour Government this began to change with devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In each of these ‘territories’, devolution has assumed different forms with each of the new elected bodies having significantly varying powers. In addition, there was also the creation of the London Assembly.
Wherever decision-making has been devolved, it has proved to be popular and, in different ways, effective. The question which the Labour Party is addressing is how decentralisation can best be taken forward. In England, this means reversing an ever-increasing centralisation which began in Tudor times. In Scotland and Wales this means building on the already established devolution settlements.
Such an all-UK ‘holistic’ approach would mark a new departure in the approach of central government to devolution. The traditional approach of previous Labour and Conservative central Governments, as well as the current Conservative-led Government, has been essentially to give ‘concessions’ to national sentiment on the Celtic fringe. While recognising that national identity is clearly important, in that it provides a bedrock on which to build institutions, the essential case for devolution is about the need to bring decision-making closer to the people and the necessity to build a modern economy. Devolution is central to both objectives.
The Scottish Labour Party is currently developing its policies to extend devolution in Scotland and, come the referendum of 2014, the Party will be putting forward a clear vision of a dynamic Scotland within the framework of the UK. In England, the Party is examining how best to decentralise decision-making from Whitehall and Westminster, possibly to local authorities.
In Wales, too, devolution is being taken forward by the Labour Party. In the referendum of 1997, devolution for Wales was secured with the slimmest of majorities. But since then, devolution has become firmly established and receives significant popular support. Today, the Labour Party in Wales describes itself as ‘Welsh Labour’. As such it is seen as the ‘natural’ party of Welsh government and is undoubtedly the dominant political force in Welsh politics. The debate inside Welsh Labour is not about whether the Welsh Assembly should have more powers; rather it is about to what extent devolution should be extended and according to what time-scale. The status quo is not the way forward.
Essentially there are two approaches to extending Welsh devolution. Firstly, there is the ‘nation-building’ approach. This is beloved by Welsh Nationalists who subscribe to the ‘project’ of creating a Welsh nation state. I say ‘creating’ because, of course, there has never been a Welsh state, if you define statehood by widely accepted criteria. The second approach is essentially evolutionary; it is about building on what has been achieved, learning lessons and pragmatically taking forward devolution so that the already established model is extended and improved.
I am a firm advocate of the second approach. Following the Government of Wales Act of 2006, which was itself a significant step down the devolution road and the referendum of 2011, which gave the Assembly primary legislative powers for the first time, there is a need for a sensible debate about how devolution can best be taken forward.
One of debates relates to the area of planning. While planning matters are generally devolved, it can be argued that it is anomalous that the Welsh Government does not have decision-making responsibility in relation to the consenting of energy generation projects of over 50 Megawatts. The Welsh Government, it is argued, has devoted much time and effort to developing a distinct spatial approach towards sustainable energy generation, but the planning process is impeded because the consent for large-scale wind turbines has to be sought through central government.
Another area is policing. It has been strongly argued that policing in Wales, particularly in the north and south, has to be based on the recognition that criminality is no respecter of Offa’s Dyke. But on the other hand, it is said, with other local services devolved, policing in Wales would benefit if it were fully engaged with those services. As things stand, proponents of police devolution point out that policing is the only emergency service which is not devolved to Wales.
But if policing were devolved it surely needs to be acknowledged that Wales would not have the capacity to provide many of the specialist services which are currently available to the police forces in Wales. I am thinking of, in particular, the National Police College based in Berkshire and the National Policing Improvement Agency. If devolution of policing did occur, then it is essential that strong relationships are maintained and that it is recognised in a practical way that the fight against crime has to continue on a UK and international basis, with the police in Wales playing a full part. Any proposal for police devolution needs to address these issues. Or perhaps, on balance, it would be better to maintain the England and Wales model.
More radically, it has been suggested that there should be a new Government of Wales Act. The essential purpose of such an Act, it is argued, would be to reverse the current presumption in the 2006 Act, so that rather than devolution relying on a list of areas which are explicitly devolved, devolution would apply to all those areas which are not reserved to central government. This is the model that governs devolution in Scotland and there is a case for at least a careful examination of how such a ‘reserved powers’ model might apply to Wales. One of the strongest arguments in favour of such a model is that it would avoid references, by an unsympathetic ‘Tory’ Government in London, of disputed cases to the Supreme Court for it to decide whether the Welsh Government is able to legislate. On the other hand, there may well be unforeseen consequences and the Assembly might find itself responsible for areas of policy it had not bargained for. It should also be noted that in Scotland the reserved powers model is not free from problems.
Recently, the first report on finance has been published by the Silk Commission. In essence it recommends the devolution of a number of relatively small taxes and borrowing powers to Wales. The report also proposes that there be limited income tax varying powers, but that the Barnett formula, through which the block grant is allocated, is at least modified. The desirability of such measures need to be openly discussed and whether an extension of devolution of this kind needs to have the consent of the Welsh people through a referendum.
Devolution is at heart about bringing decision-making closer to the people in a way that recognises the realities of the modern world. It is also about ensuring that there are flexible structures of government in place which reflect people’s sense of identity. That is why it makes sense to consider extending Welsh devolution, while at the same time developing devolution throughout the UK so that it strengthens the United Kingdom as a whole.
This article first appeared on the London School of Economics British Politics and Policy blog.