First Minister Carwyn Jones has said the United Kingdom is on the brink of major constitutional change, which would radically alter Wales’s relationship with the rest of the union. Speaking to a conference in Cardiff Bay a fortnight ago to launch a three-year research project on Wales and the Changing Union, he declared:
“We are on the brink on huge constitutional change in the UK. There is a strong case for reforming our central institutions to reflect the emerging reality of a looser UK. We should be moving forward as a Union to a constitution that reflects the 21st not the 19th Century. We must consider the prospect of a written constitution which in part would define the relationship between the Devolved Administrations and UK Institutions. The UK has changed beyond recognition over the past 15 years and it is time that our constitution recognised this.”
Reiterating his call for a Constitutional Convention to consider the future of the UK in the round and not nation by nation, the First Minister acknowledged that the agenda was being driven by Scotland:
“If the people of Scotland vote in favour of independence the shape and constitutional make-up of the UK will be dramatically changed. Equally, if the vote is against independence there is still the prospect of substantive constitutional change in one part of the UK that potentially will impact on all other parts of the Union.”
And he added:
“We need to start discussing the future of the UK before the Scots go to the polls. We need a comprehensive look at what kind of UK we want to have.”
He said a written constitution was needed to entrench the position and role of the National Assembly to safeguard it from arbitrary abolition by Westminster. “Is it right for the UK Parliament to be able to abolish the National Assembly?” he asked. However unlikely that prospect might be he said the possibility could not be right. “We need the protection a written constitution would provide us.”
He repeated his suggestion that under a written constitution the House of Lords could be reformed so that it became, in effect, a federal upper chamber with equal representation for each of the four nations of the UK. “An arrangement like that could help bind the together the nations of the UK.”
He described the present constitutional set up as “an incremental asymmetric quasi-federation” that was far from satisfactory. “The UK has changed and the constitution needs to catch up,” he said.
Another problem he highlighted was what he called “the Bridgend Question”, after his Assembly constituency. This was his riposte to the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’, named after the former MP for the constituency Tam Dalyell who raised it during the 1970s devolution debates. This referred to the anomaly in which MPs from Wales and Scotland can vote on English domestic affairs, while following devolution English MPs cannot do so in relation to those same matters in Wales and Scotland.
This position was reversed in some areas of European policy, especially agriculture which is wholly devolved. Speaking from personal experience as a former Minister of Agriculture in the Welsh Government, Carwyn Jones said that in the European Council of Ministers Britain’s case was put by the English Minister for Agriculture, regardless of whether Welsh, Scottish or Northern Ireland Ministers agreed or not.
He added that there used to be a monthly meeting of Agriculture Ministers to agree a common UK line but that this practice had lapsed, with the English Minister deciding the UK’s position regardless of the views of the devolved administrations. This was another matter that a written constitution could address.
The First Minister also set out his views on the fiscal and borrowing powers of the National Assembly. His first priority was reform of the Barnett formula that decided the size of the Welsh block grant to tackle the under-funding that had been established by the Holtham Commission.
Following this, there was an urgent necessity to give the Welsh Government borrowing powers that were now enjoyed by both Northern Ireland and Scotland. He gave the example of major investment that was needed to upgrade the M4 around Port Talbot and also tackle the pinch point of the Brynglas Tunnels at Newport that could only be undertaken by borrowing. Unless this was addressed Wales could find itself as being the only part of the UK where such major projects could not be implemented.
He said that transferring income tax to the Assembly would require a referendum because of the precedent set by the Scottish referendum on the issue in 1997, in which there were two questions, one on creating the Scottish Parliament and the other on giving it income tax varying powers.
Devolution of corporation tax would provide the Welsh Government with a useful tool for economic development but there was a risk of a race to the bottom if all the devolved administrations decided to have a bidding war on lowering the rate. Nonetheless, if Northern Ireland and Scotland were successful in levering control of corporation tax from the Treasury Wales should not be left behind. There was a stronger case for devolving:
- Stamp duty – so the Welsh Government could assist first time buyers.
- An aggregation levy on the commercial exploitation of rock, sand, and gravel.
- A land-fill tax.
- Airport duties as a tool for the rejuvenation of Cardiff airport.
However, the First Minister’s line in the sand was that there could be no movement on taxation to make the National Assembly more fiscally accountable until the prior issue of funding via the block grant was settled satisfactorily.
Taken together this was the most radical speech on the UK constitution by a Welsh Labour leader in a generation. Carwyn Jones acknowledged that he was unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing from the Prime Minister David Cameron or the Secretary of State Cheryl Gillan, who had only a week ago dismissed the launch of his Green Paper on establishing a separate jurisdiction for Wales.
“But we should at least start the debate,” he said, noting that Wales had developed its constitution much faster over the past decade than many people had anticipated:
“In 1999 it would have been thought unlikely that the people of Wales would have supported primary legislative power so emphatically in the referendum last year. At the moment the UK government has its eyes turned to Scotland. But you cannot solve these problems by looking at just one part of the UK.”
And anticipating criticisms that these arguments were not relevant to the concerns of ordinary people he said:
“Some people may say that constitutional debates are only of academic value, but I have to disagree. The outcomes of these debates will impact directly on how we as a Government deliver our services to the people of Wales.”
This piece was originally published on ClickOnWales.org.