Carwyn Jones, the constitution, and the changing forever of Britain

Whatever happens in Scotland, the Welsh First Minister will ensure that the constitutional debate continues across the UK. Britain is changing forever.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
23 November 2013

Carwyn Jones

Most people haven't heard of Carwyn Jones. Even when I ask friends who are members of the Labour party if they know who he is, they usually don't. Which is strange. Because he is certainly the person in their party with the most hard power. He can set laws and spend money. And, increasingly, he's changing the shape of Britain more than any other Labour politician.

This week, Carwyn (who, if you're wondering, is the First Minister of Wales) was in Edinburgh. Standing in the Raeburn Room in the university's Old College – named for the master of Scottish Georgian portraiture – he painted two separate pictures. The first was for the majority who would only glimpse at his speech through newspaper headlines.

This image was one we've seen before. In fact, it had the mark of Better Together all over it. “Pooling risk” is the blotting thumbprint of their speech writers. The headline grabbing paragraph was about currency fears. As ever. Brushed onto the canvass, though, even of this picture, were some colours which seemed more like they originated from Jones himself: comparing the relationship between Scotland and Wales to the marriage between Nye Bevan and Fife socialist Jennie Lee; arguing, in a language long drained from the souls of Scottish Labour, that the legacy of the welfare state which binds Scotland and Wales is alive and worth fighting for.

This case against Scottish independence is the picture which you find in most of the newspaper coverage of the speech. But it is not all that was said. And the other image which Jones painted is much more interesting. Let me pull out a few quotes for you.

“The first principle must be one of respect for the devolved legislatures and their essential legitimacy rooted in popular support. This should be enshrined in a constitutional guarantee. It is not right that any of the devolved legislatures should have to depend on the good will of Westminster for their existence. A new constitution should guarantee the continuing existence of the devolved legislatures as permanent features of the Union.”

Though he doesn't explicitly call for a constitution to be written, it is hard to see how such a guarantee could exist without one of some sort.

Second, he argues for the maximum level of devolution possible. As he sees it, there ought to be:

“a presumption in favour of devolution. The direct and immediate accountability of the devolved institutions is the basis of the case for extending devolution wherever practicable. To my mind, democratic accountability means that, where there are no UK-wide interests, the devolved legislatures should be making the decisions.”

Of course, what this means is not something about which people will agree. If the bedroom tax hits Wales hardest (and it does) does this mean that housing benefit ought to be devolved? Or is it a UK wide interest? I assume he means the former, but all of these questions remain. But such a constitutional assumption, and the existence of a genuine constitution in the first place, would be radical changes to the make up of the United Kingdom.

There is a vague sense of “strengthening, not breaking up” a welfare state whose component parts, other than benefits and tax credits are already largely devolved. But apart from that, the only things which Jones specifically says should remain Westminster powers are defence, currency (which, strictly speaking, is a power held by the Monetary Policy Committee, not Westminster) and “open trade between the all parts of the UK” – which implies the government not really doing anything. So not very much then. He even stole a favourite piece of SNP jargon. The UK, he said, should be a “social union”.

The whole speech, then, is a reminder of four things. First, the independence debate is about powers: which should lie at Westminster, which with the devolved assemblies and parliaments, and which with the EU and local authorities, though these elements are often treated separately. In Scotland there is a spectrum of views. At one end are the Scottish Greens. They want a separate currency and head of state. Next, the SNP, who are pushing for fiscal and foreign policy but want to keep the pound and the Queen. Then, we have the Lib Dems who, though they seem not to talk about it any more, are in theory fans of federalism. After them, there are Labour and the Tories – who both now say they support a greater measure of fiscal policy being devolved. Finally, there's UKIP.

It's worth noting that, in this context, everyone is in favour of a “social union”. No one, for example, is arguing for the erection of a border post. I understand that in Catalonia, immigration from other regions of Spain is seen as an issue. In Scotland, migrants from Wales, or England, or Ireland are welcomed by all parties. While the referendum has naturally polarized this debate, Jones' intervention is a useful reminder that there is a vast consensus in Scotland in favour of significantly more powers for Holyrood, and that this sentiment extends to Wales too. Whatever happens on the 18th of September next year, the constitutional make up of the UK isn't stable.

The second thing this highlights is that the constitutional debate in these islands isn't only about Scotland, and it doesn't end with the independence referendum. What Westminster will concede is still up for grabs. But Wales is likely facing a its third referendum since 1997, in which it seems probable that it will secure significantly more powers: Jones has won support for such a position from all 4 parties in the Senedd.

As Iain Macwhirter says, the transformation of Wales from the country which voted overwhelmingly against devolution in 1979 to the one which just secured law making powers and is now seeking tax powers is much more notable than the political swing in Scotland, where there has long been a consensus for devolution. Northern Ireland too is discussing such matters – in particular, corporation tax - and the Scottish government is seriously investigating increased devolution to the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. The UK is rapidly being re-shaped.

The third thing worth noting is that these changes on what many in England would see as the fringes of Britain have the potential to significantly reform the whole of the UK. If Labour win in 2015, the most embedded member of their party, by some way, will be Carwyn Jones. If he can get what he wants from Tories, imagine what he might secure from an Ed Miliband who will need to make up for a lack of Milibandites with significant concessions to those who do have power within the party. And the Welsh Labour leader has told us what he wishes his legacy to be. If a written constitution is secured from the next Labour government by a crusading First Minister, it must, surely include in it more than the distribution of policy levers between the various elected chambers in the UK. Blink, and you'd have missed it, but those who yearn for an enshrined codification of power in Britain may just have won a significant advocate.

And the final thing the speech highlights: Carwyn Jones is, I think by some way, the most talented senior Labour politician in the UK. Were the SNP facing him, their prospects would be very different: while Scottish Labour have been crushed by the SNP, Welsh Labour under him and his predecessor Rhodri Morgan, has thrived.

More significantly, it's worth considering this comparison. The Mayor of London is regularly tipped to be the next leader of the Conservative party. I suspect you can name him without me prompting. The First Minister of Wales has much more power than the Mayor. While his metropolitan opposite number is playing around with bikes, Carwyn Jones is genuinely bending the UK's future to his – and his people's - will. He is younger than Boris, and has achieved remarkable electoral success through the darkest days his party has known. Yet you won't find anyone tipping him in any discussion of future UK Prime Ministers. If we want to understand how warped UK politics is towards London, think for a moment about the assertion I started with. Most people haven't heard of Carwyn Jones.

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