Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales, has launched a campaign for an early move to federalism for the UK.
Speaking to members of the Welsh Assembly and reported in today’s, 26th December 2013, edition of The Independent, Mr Jones – a committed unionist, declared the UK ‘constitution’ unfit for the 21st century, noting that it is indefensible for the Westminster Secretary of State for Wales to have the power to veto Bills at the Welsh Assembly. Of course it is. It may not be a power put to use but such a power ought not to exist.
In a thoughtful discourse which identifies serious obstacles to the continuation of the status quo, whatever happens in the Scottish Independence Referendum, Mr Jones sees the UK’s ‘constitution’ as having reached the limits of its ability to accommodate devolution.
He opposes Scottish independence on two main grounds of the interest of Wales:
- if Scotland left the Union, Wales would lose a friend and partner in the negotiations with the UK government;
- if Scotland left the Union, Wales, with Northern Ireland, would statistically be left even more prey to the economic dominance of England.
As he has already made clear, if Scotland left the Union and wished to press for membership of a Sterling zone, Mr Jones would use his veto to block it – in the interests of Wales. He sees the delay in coming to any agreement on monetary policy for a sterling zone, with two governments involved, as ‘dithering around’ in a waste of strategic decision-taking time that Wales will not tolerate.
The Scottish Government’s response to Mr Jones’ concerns about the impact on Wales of being left within the Union in even greater deficit to the weight of England is a reassurance of the opposite, with absolutely no argument presented to back up the assertion. This is becoming the way of ‘debate’ on Scottish independence. Just say it like you want it.
While Mr Jones argument is statistically irrefutable in pointing to a greater imbalance than is the current case within the Union, the Scottish Government has nevertheless declared that a Yes vote will help Wales, saying: ‘It will also benefit the rest of the UK – including Wales – by helping to redress the huge economic imbalances currently in favour of London and the south east of England.’
This is handy dog-whistle rhetoric but, understandably, makes no attempt to explain the inexplicable. It would, though, be interesting to see the detail in defence of any such argument. It can only be predicated on the assumption of an independent Scotland immediately becoming an economic powerhouse, acting then as a counter to the engine of the south east.
This transformation cannot possibly happen under the current Scottish Government propositions, as has been exhaustively demonstrated by independent financial analysts. [It gets tedious to repeat the key facts of the balance sheet of the current prospectus and can seem like a slam-dunk obsession, so we do not propose to give it again; but if anyone wants it, we will add it in a comment to this piece.]
Of course Scotland can be an independent country but it cannot instantly be more prosperous on the sound of the liberty bell. Nor can it pay for the increased slate of promised additional benefits without raising the funds for these from somewhere – and, under the current proposals, that can only be from income tax. In this case, many of the middle class, the engine of the economy and the most likely target of raised income tax, would simply ship out. What would they be getting in exchange for their higher taxes?
So the reassurances given in response to Mr Jones’ concerns for Wales are insubstantial, if not nonsensical.
With the Welsh economy growing faster than any in the UK except the south east and the north west of England, Carwyn Jones says straightforwardly that, in the event of a vote for Scotland to remain in the Union, Wales could not be treated as ‘second class’ to Scotland.
With economic muscle to flex, the dragon seems to be limbering up at last, getting more assertive. The dynamic of the UK, whatever happens next September, will be different in future.
Jones says – in an echo of the Scottish Government’s mantra – that ‘… we need to have proper control over our resources to create jobs in Wales. We don’t have that at the moment’.
This would indicate a new will to press for the greater devolved powers the UK government is said to be ready to pass to Scotland – total control over income tax related matters and control over housing benefit as well as housing policy.
If the UK is indeed ready to pass these powers to Scotland, there is no reason not to pass them to Wales as well. Wales loses out by £300 million a year from the imbalance of the Barnet formula for the calculation of the revenue share out between the constituent states of the UK – a formula which favours Scotland, yet makes little complaint.
Carwyn Jones describes the prospect of an English Parliament as ‘the elephant in the room’ in a debate on the constitution. This understates the position. An English parliament is an imperative. Without it there is a unacceptable democratic deficit.
Scotland is not debating independence from England. It is debating independence from the United Kingdom, which is made up of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and, currently, Scotland.
This United Kingdom has not yet completed its devolution evolution. It cannot have a coherent political identity until that is done.
In a way Scotland is considering separation prematurely. We do not yet know what the completed devolution revolution will look like or how it will work. Whatever we do, it would be a pity not to be a part of the excitement of the last and arguably most substantial part of that process.
The UK’s current political arrangements, as they stand, cannot withstand any rational scrutiny. They are the traditional British fudge. England is denied the management of its affairs that the other member nations already have in different degree. That England, largely, does not complain about this does not make it acceptable.
The question of whether the solution to the English democratic deficit is an English parliament or a series of English regional parliaments or assemblies is not one that can be made by any existing elected body. No current body has the right to speak for England.
The only solution to this is an English referendum – or referenda – to enable England to decide on the shape of its own devolution – as the next move towards the federal relationship that is the most developmental future for all of us.