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99Rewind: One devolution decade, two referendums, where next?

Updated Monday, 18th April 2011

Rachel Banner, spokesperson for the campaign against direct law-making powers for the National Assembly for Wales, gives her take on the devolution journey, its next destination and what she perceives as the lack of debate.

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We were told in 1997 that devolution would equip Wales to close the wealth gap with the rest of the United Kingdom. We argued that a very good reason for voting No in the 2011 referendum was that, despite record UK treasury grants and EU structural funding, that gap has widened to more than 25 per cent over the devolution period so far.

Many politicians argued that voting Yes would turn law-making into a shield against the economic adversity hitting our country. Yet, aside from the fact that making laws is an unlikely tool for tackling the impact of recession, the lack of economic and educational dividend over the devolution period demonstrates the hollowness of this argument.

The England-Wales border at Powys
County line or international border? Where England meets Wales

Over the first devolution decade, Wales had the funding for building new economic foundations, but failed to invest in our schools. A recent report shows that 40 per cent of primary school children are now leaving with a below average reading age. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that the funding gap between Wales and England has widened to £604 per pupil.

The best shield for Wales against cuts would have been the creation in the first devolution decade of a top class 21st century, high investment education system. The referendum campaign this year was characterised by repeated denials from politicians in the Yes campaign that this referendum was about more than a simple ‘tidying up exercise’. The people were never to be trusted with a proper debate on the devolution ‘journey’.

There was no debate on the notion of a separate legal jurisdiction for Wales. Yet, on 23rd March 2011, the First Minister announced that Wales needs ‘a distinctive legal jurisdiction’.

The One Wales coalition agreement contained a commitment to consider the evidence to devolve criminal justice. Weren’t the people of Wales entitled to consider such a consequence of a Yes vote?

During the course of the referendum campaign, Welsh Assembly politicians repeatedly denied that a 'Yes' vote would lead to tax-raising powers for the Assembly, even though Danny Alexander MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, clearly stated that there could be a Calman-style Commission in the event of the Assembly getting direct law-making power.

Nick Clegg

Only two days after polling day, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced a commission on tax and borrowing powers, stating that the Yes result on this ‘mere technical matter’ left a discrepancy between Wales's new law-making powers and lack of responsibility for raising its own budget.  Yet, it was not considered necessary to allow the people of Wales to hear about the implications of fiscal devolution during the course of the referendum campaign.

In the space of less than a month since the referendum there have been significant steps towards radical devolution which were not put to the people of Wales by the Yes campaign. This includes, the Presiding Officer calling for the abolition of the Wales Office; the Lib Dem peer Roger Roberts, calling for twenty more AMs; the First Minister in favour of borrowing powers; and the UK Government has announced plans to establish a commission on the West Lothian Question which may result in the barring of Welsh MPs from voting on England-only matters.

Carwyn Jones has spoken about resisting attempts to foist tax-varying powers on Wales. But the tectonic plates of devolution are shifting. Public opinion in England simply won’t take kindly any more to any UK Government writing block grant cheques to the devolved nations without them reaching into their pockets to pay local taxes. The UK Government, then, is prepared to concede fiscal accountability to devolved governments. There may be a replacement of the current funding system in exchange for tax-varying powers, with the clear implication of a decreasing block grant settlement.  For this, no referendum is required.

The devolution trends are taking Britain in the next decade or so to a fundamental constitutional realignment, out of which a federal UK is likely to emerge. This will be a fertile period for Welsh nationalism with all main parties in Cardiff Bay coalescing around that ideology as they fight for their place in the new ‘political nation’.;

Cardiff rooftops

One thing is certain: the referendum on 3rd March, far from being ‘merely a technical matter’, has dramatically altered the political landscape of Wales and the UK, expanding the devolution settlement a long way beyond that to which 23 per cent of the electorate consented.

There can be no challenge to a referendum result which gave the Assembly direct law-making power: what the people of Wales did not do, however, was give the green light to radical devolution measures about which they were not consulted. Radical devolution by stealth has no legitimacy.

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Enjoy the campaign and the experience of rewinding to 1999!


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