The Scotland bill published on St Andrew’s Day is a very ‘Scottish’ affair’. There is scant mention of Wales in it, and little scope for a ‘read across’ from what’s proposed for Scotland to what might happen for Wales. That’s no accident. Key to the UK Coalition Government’s view of devolution is that it sees Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as each being wholly different and unique, and wants to manage relations with them and their constitutional development in different ways. These aren’t even separate but parallel tracks – for the Coalition, they seem to head in different directions. Scotland will indeed have 10 ‘points’ of income tax power devolved to it, along with a ‘proportional’ reduction in the block grant from London, and some smaller taxes. While Danny Alexander says that there are no UK-level objections to a similar scheme for Wales, there are no active plans to support that either. The UK Government has also firmly closed the door on any review of the amount of the block grant, whether for Scotland or Wales, saying ‘the UK Government’s priority is to reduce the deficit and does not have any plans to change arrangements before the stabilisation of the public finances’, as well as (bizarrely, and wrongly) linking that to the outcome of a referendum on primary legislative powers for the Assembly.
But the Scotland bill is important for Wales. Many in Scotland – particularly but not only from the SNP – would question whether securing the implementation of Calman is a ‘win’, but it is a significant change to how Scottish devolution works and is seen by both the UK Government and the unionist parties in Scotland. From London’s point of view, Wales has already had a similar ‘win’, in the form of the 2006 Government of Wales Act. And both these changes suggest a good deal about how the National Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government should think about their relations with London. It suggests the Assembly Government needs to learn some tough lessons about how manage its relations with London.
The first lesson is the value of some sort of leverage. In the case of Scotland, this was the threat posed by the SNP minority government, the opening-up of the constitutional debate that resulted and the pressure on the unionist parties to come up with some sort of response. Both Labour and Conservatives had fought the 2007 elections on the basis that no constitutional change was necessary, but within months they supported the idea of a ‘review’ of devolution, and just over two years later they embraced the Calman proposals. Indeed, there are now many in all three parties who would support a rather more extensive form of fiscal autonomy than Calman advocates. But it was the threat posed by the SNP that opened this up – without such a challenge, there’d be a debate but not much action.
Wales had some leverage in 2004-6. That arose from the increasing difficulties of making the settlement set out in the 1998 Act work, and the critique of that in the Richard Commission’s report and the alternative Richard offered, as well as Labour’s need to show devolution could be made to work. (What Wales ended up with, of course, was a messy compromise between the 1998 Act arrangements and the Richard recommendations.) But key to those changes was domestic politics, first in the Liberal Democrats’ insistence on setting up the Commission as part of their Partnership Agreement with Labour, and then in Plaid Cymru’s demands in forming the One Wales Agreement. While Welsh Labour has claimed credit for these steps, its involvement has been reactive rather than active, and its negotiating and electoral position undermined by its lack of clear constitutional thinking.
Wales can’t offer an internal threat akin to that of the SNP in Scotland, as Plaid Cymru is a very different creature. It doesn’t pose the same sort of electoral threat to the unionist parties and particularly Labour, and it doesn’t pose the same sort of existential threat to the UK even to the extent it’s committed to independence for Wales. Wales will therefore have to look for other ways of exercising leverage, and key to that will be building alliances with others who share its interests.
One possible source of allies is the other devolved administrations. Getting unity between them has been tricky up to now, partly because Welsh Labour was uneasy at being seen as getting too close to the SNP. As a result, it only really started to happen after the UK Coalition was formed. So far, it has manifested itself in two clear actions: the common application by all three devolved governments to the new disputes panel of the Joint Ministerial Committee over consequentials under the Barnett formula for the 2012 Olympics (discussed in more detail here), and the joint statement of all three first ministers before the UK spending review (discussed here). But neither has borne much fruit in tangible terms, and the value of building such alliances has to be questioned given the deep differences of interest between the three governments. Their main shared interest arises from UK Government actions, not because Scotland and Wales have similar economic or social problems. But it’s not a route to be spurned either, in the context of a though-through intergovernmental strategy.
The best other way Wales might exercise leverage is through all those with an interest in Wales’s well-being. That means the National Assembly as well as the Assembly Government, but top of the list has to be the Welsh MPs at Westminster. They remain a powerful influence – especially if and when they are able to act together as a group, regardless of their party affiliation. (The outcome of the S4C funding row shows that the attempt by the Coalition’s Welsh MPs alone was not enough; their voices could be overlooked amid the pressures of the spending review.) But if they act together, and in alliance with the Assembly and WAG, things may be different. That puts pressure on the UK Government from both its Parliamentary supporters and opponents, in conditions when Parliament matters. Close liaison there may be able to help, especially as the Conservatives can win and lose votes and seats in Wales.
The second lesson is to recognise how the UK Government looks at intergovernmental and constitutional debates. The key point is that the Coalition seems to take a very instrumental view. For example, in the Scottish case, the UK Government largely overlooked the Parliament between 1999 and 2007 and simply tried to manage its relations with Scotland through the Scottish Executive. When the Parliament asserted itself – as with the procedure for ‘Sewel’ motions (which it renamed ‘legislative consent motions’), the UK responded slowly, reluctantly and in the most limited way it could. After 2007, though, it suddenly discovered the virtues of Parliamentary democracy. While still showing little interest in developing inter-parliamentary links, both Labour and Coalition governments have been quite happy to make alliances with the Parliament (where the unionist parties have a majority) to outmanoeuvre the SNP. The conclusion seems to be that the UK will be highly pragmatic, if others will help it achieve its goals.
This sort of environment suggests a rethink of how the Assembly Government handles intergovernmental relations. It’s been inclined to play to the gallery and be highly tribalistic. This may appeal to Labour members, and might be good electoral politics in Wales, but it’s not been an effective strategy when it comes to securing better outcomes for Wales. Two key changes seem necessary to operate in this environment.
First, Wales needs to formulate some goals that appeal to a wide spread of opinion in Wales, not just Labour interests. It’s only when Wales can speak with a largely united voice that it speaks loudly enough for London to hear – certainly now the Conservative- Lib Dem Coalition is calling the shots. That of course means all parties will need to make compromises, and that may be uncomfortable for some. However, it’s necessary to open the door to securing longer-term benefits. So if sorting out finance is the goal – and everyone agrees on the need for change – there needs to be agreement on what that change should be. It’s still far from clear whether any of the parties really wants the Holtham Commission report in full – each seems keen to cherry-pick the bits they like, rather than treat it as the package of a ‘fair grant’ plus limited taxing powers that it was intended to be. Given the work done by the Commission, re-opening their package to come up with something that’s both coherent and achievable is a huge undertaking; but to achieve anything more than hot air, the options are either to do that, or demand Holtham as it stands.
Second, once the Assembly Government has selected its priorities, it must pursue them with consistency. The first years of the One Wales coalition showed a rather inconsistent approach – whether about securing legislative powers by LCO, agreement on a referendum on primary powers, or financial changes. It kicked both the constitutional and financial debates into touch by awaiting the reports of the All Wales Convention and the Holtham Commission, but it took its time in throwing its weight behind either of them once the reports were published too. (Don’t forget that it took more than a year to set up the Holtham Commission once the principle of a commission on finance was agreed, as well.) Careful management of both priorities and timetable is going to be key for securing favourable outcomes for Wales.
The publication of the Scotland bill tells us a lot about how high-level intergovernmental processes work under the Coalition UK Government. Wales is going to have to adapt to that, or be left moaning on the sidelines. And that’s going to call for a very different approach from the Welsh Assembly Government. Let’s hope that, after the May 2011 elections, it feels able to take up that challenge.