In a week that has seen the first Welsh Grand Committee in years, it’s interesting to review the positions of the Welsh representatives of political parties in Westminster. The reason it is so useful to do at the present time is that we can compare (and in the case of the Conservatives and Labour) contrast the policies of their Welsh Party affiliates between the UK Election of 2015 and ahead of the Welsh Election in 2016.
The chief reason for the committee being called at this time was, of course, to discuss the Draft Wales Bill, the latest entry in an unloved lineage of Welsh constitutional redesigns. As a constitutional nerd, I could write almost endlessly about the genesis, development and implications of implementation of this draft bill. However, there is simply no need as the Senedd Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee and the Wales Governance Centre/UCL Constitution Unit have covered this ground so comprehensively. In fact, this Welsh Grand was preceded the previous evening by the Westminster Launch of the WGC/UCL report. To say that it was referred to throughout the debate would be understating to the same extent as Richard Wyn Jones did when he described the draft bill as ‘problematic’.
Of course we await (as of Feb 8th) the publication of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee report on the draft bill. This is as much of a reflection of the diversity of views on that committee and a test of David TC Davies’s diplomatic skills (as chair) than anything else. There is unlikely to be anywhere near the level of consensus as David Melding was able to achieve in the Assembly. Having reviewed all the evidence they have heard (and discounting the somewhat derivative contribution from the anti-Assembly ‘True Wales’ group), the report is likely to be a rounded-off echo of comments already expressed elsewhere.
In putting the discussion of the draft bill’s content to one side, we are left with the opportunity to look at the broad positions of four UK (dare I say ‘English’ in the style of Carwyn Jones, to much mocking in this debate) in relation to their Welsh equivalents.
UK Conservatives: The Cairns & Crabb position on the Draft Bill remains, somewhat admirably, robustly defiant. Behind the scenes, I’m sure that they are exploring alternatives to present a more palatable second draft but we ought not expect the Secretary of State to make serious structural adjustments that address the fundamental flaws of the draft bill. Stephen Crabb has clearly stated that (outside of tax & self-government of the Assembly structures/procedures) he is not in the game of further extending Welsh devolution. One could consider his main intent being to lock down the current devolution arrangement for Wales not as it currently is but rather as the UK Government want it to be. Does that mean rolling back powers? Yes it does. Does that mean converting ‘silent’ subjects to reservations? Yes, clearly. Does it, through the adjustments to Crown Consents, give a UK Ministerial veto of a large slice of Welsh Government policy? Yes, indisputably.
So what should we make of this? Well, devo-sceptic Tory is, as devo-sceptic Tory does. This is exactly what we should expect from a Tory UK Government with a parliamentary majority and to argue that they ought act differently is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Much as we might find this objectionable, it is worth remembering that the Assembly’s creation and previous modification were driven by perceived benefits to the then UK Government of the Labour Party. This is the first opportunity the UK Tory party has had to shape the settlement in a way that expresses its values (we see this crystallised in the expeditious partial devolution of income tax) and we should not see its restrictive agenda as a gaffe but I agree with Phil Davies that it would be far more agreeable if the SoS would openly describe this as their intention.
The contribution from the Tory backbenches demonstrate a modest variation on the theme. There continue to be those who believe further devolution of anything substantial to be ‘potty’ and more constructive thoughts were contributed from the not-quite-devophillic David TC Davies about how scrutiny of Assembly legislation could be improved. It would be remiss not to mention Craig Williams MP’s wilful blindness on the issue of variation between the Law of Wales and the Law of England. It has been notable that in WASC scrutiny he referred to not having heard mention on any doorstep in his constituency that voters were unhappy with the unified legal jurisdiction of England and Wales. One may have expected at least one of the pro-devolution voices to answer by suggesting that few voters in the Assembly election have voiced enthusiasm for constraints on the delivery of health and education in the name of preservation of the single jurisdiction.
Welsh Conservatives: It is difficult not to applaud the hard work the Welsh Conservatives have been doing recently to boost their profile in Wales. There have been a tranch of news releases, FOI requests and public statements that suggest that the professionalisation of their organisation is clearly progressing. Andrew RT Davies is clearly growing into the role of Welsh Conservative leader, though doubts must surely remain about how deep his understanding of the legal groundings of the draft Wales Bill actually is.
It is in light of this strengthened position and, perhaps with whiff of Welsh Labour blood in the air, that the party has seen fit to back the CLAC committee’s motions criticising the draft Wales Bill across the chamber. The swift (potentially unplanned) announcement that they would use tax-varying powers to cut upper and lower tax bands in the unlikely event of being elected into government in Cardiff Bay demonstrates the kind of ambition for government that his predecessors rarely mustered. Divisions clearly remain (Nick Ramsay, in particularly, is unlikely to be on RT’s Christmas card list) but success soothes all sores. On that back of a very promising GE2015 result, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Tories could ride out the UKIP storm and strengthen their position in the Assembly chamber. In trying to goad Leanne Wood into ruling out coalition with Labour, it would appear that the Welsh Conservatives are in rude health.
It did seem somewhat unfair that, in the Welsh Grand, David Melding was being held up as being a voice running contrary to his own party. As chair of a cross party committee he had a very difficult task and duly reflected the evidence presented to him and authored a commendable report. Only the most deeply partisan would consider him less than committed to his party or to Wales.
UK Labour: Undoubtedly the least coherent party in the Welsh Grand, the Welsh MPs in the UK Labour Party looked more like a loosely aligned group of individuals and rarely spoke with a single voice on any issue. This may be symptomatic of a greater malaise in the the party prompted by the controversial leadership positions of Corbyn and McDonnell and not without reason. The peculiar choice of Nia Griffith as SSoS for Wales had a direct impact on this session. She faltered, stuttered and wandered before finally completing a pre-prepared statement without convincing anyone of her point. To make anyone long for Owen Smith to be in the chamber, as she did, is quite extraordinary, particularly given his collaboration with the Tories on scuttling further devolution to Wales. However, he is a polished and robust performer and would have been happy to joust with Crabb and Co. rather than meekly insult them as Griffith did. Of course, his Kinnockian unionism is probably (if not definitely) closer to Stephen Crabb’s than Carwyn Jones’s. In his absence, it was the very scion of Kinnock that picked up his mantle by casting murky allusions to the privatisation of Milford Haven while Kevin Brennan picked a somewhat incidental line attacking the EVEL procedure.
If someone were to try and define the UK Labour policy on devolution to Wales from this session, they would be left hunting for scraps. Despite the SoS’s repeated attempts to get a clear line from Nia Griffith, it was clear that they wished to say nothing, loudly. With Smith, Kinnock and Brennan among the clearer (and more ambitious) voices on the opposition benches, one might infer that their philosophy might be to blankly oppose Tory policy for Wales, despite being broadly in agreement with them behind the curtain. The suggestion that the wave of obfuscation was caused by a reluctance to accept (or simply delay) the devolution of income tax to Wales may have been looking too deeply for motives that are more likely to be incidental or consequential to other ambitions.
Welsh Labour: For the many things that you can criticise the Welsh Labour Party for, Carwyn Jones’s clarity of opposition to the substance of the draft Wales Bill is not one. The Welsh Labour line has surprised many, not just in vehemence but in tone.
The Welsh Labour Government may (or may not) have the backing of the Welsh public in opposing the UK Tory government’s constraints on devolution to Wales but they are undeniably feeling the pressure of hitherto unchallenged government in Wales.
It might be that the WG see potential electoral benefits in a ruckus with UK Government ahead of the election and/or it might well be the case the Carwyn Jones is indeed leading an increasingly-less-soft-nationalist party in Welsh Labour. One suspects that neither of those factors will have one iota of effect upon the UKIP surge in the Labour heartlands of the SE Wales valleys. The impression is clearly that the foundations that have become less stable without a bogeyman (in Thatcher), and were further undermined by the metropolitisation of New Labour under Blair, are deteriorating to the extent that voters are decamping to the sure-footedness of UKIP’s island nation ideology. This is a Labour problem for Labour to solve as the Plaid Cymru & Conservative vote has a unifying theme that hardens their message against the UKIP siren’s call. The question remains in Wales, as in England and Scotland: What is Labour for?
Liberal Democrat: The ‘last Liberal standing’ Mark Williams continues to grow his reputation as one of the most capable constituency MPs in Wales. His party’s depleted presence in Westminster has greatly diminished the Liberal Democrats influence on the draft Wales Bill. However, he has been both diplomatic and honest about the St David’s Day process, particularly its Westminster-centric approach. The Liberal Democrat position of ‘Home Rule’ has remained unwavering at UK and Welsh level and is a rare example of UK and Welsh party singing from the same sheet.
Welsh Liberal Democrats: Facing a potential wipe out, if not further reduced presence, after the 2016 Welsh Election, Vaughan Roderick described their 2016 conference as the ‘Welsh Liberal Democrat Memorial Conference’. Their greatest asset, Kirsty Williams, would be a great loss to the Assembly should she not be re-elected but that is not beyond the realms of possibility. Their position on ‘Home Rule’ and a coherent approach to devolution (clearly espoused by the excellent William Powell on the Senedd CLAC) has led to them clearly denouncing the draft Wales Bill. We wait to see if they have any AMs in the chamber when the final bill reaches the Assembly for legislative consent.
Plaid Cymru: As one might expect, the draft bill greatly offends MPs and AMs alike. In fact, the SoS has repeatedly applauded the consistency with which Plaid Cymru have approached the debate, albeit with a diametrically opposite viewpoint than his own. It continues to be seen whether the Plaid team can avoid what would be an embarrassing 4th place behind UKIP in the upcoming Assembly Election.
Carwyn Jones’s ‘Nationalist Tone’ (unpleasant or not) continues to steal some of Plaid Cymru’s thunder. They must be longing for the days of Alun Michael’s branch office approach and a smaller body of red water between UK Labour and Cardiff Bay.
In particular, the legal acumen of Liz Saville-Roberts has proven particularly useful in untangling the individual elements of the draft bill which the party can oppose. The biggest challenge remains winning the hearts and minds of enough of the Welsh public to substantially shift the tectonics of the Senedd. One thing is for certain, another role as a junior member in either Welsh Labour or the Welsh Conservative coalition would be fatal to long term success.
One mention was given to a rumour, during the Welsh Grand, that there was an ambition to publish the final bill around St David’s Day. Even if that (ambitious!) target is hit, it will be unlikely to be in a state that the Welsh parties will accept so it looks like these debates will rumble on before the trench warfare in the House of Lords even begins.
Two questions that remain unanswered but could prove pivotal are:
Will the UK Government pass the bill even if, as the First Minister has suggested, the Assembly refuses to give consent?
Will the UK Labour party publicly state their policy on Welsh devolution and is it in line with what the draft Wales Bill proposes?
Just as an aside, Prof Richard Rawlings covered much of the interesting constitutional conflicts presented by the draft Wales Bill in his recent lecture at the Pierhead – as well as covering the Kilbrandon report, which Alan Cairns referred to in the course of the Welsh Grand. Well worth a watch.
Thanks for reading this unexpectedly long post, please share your comments on Twitter. The next post is going to be about local government and where I think the Welsh Tories have (almost) got the right idea.