Questions about the constitutional settlement of the UK have been circulating the corridors of power since the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, but the Brexit vote has reinforced the urgency of the situation. As I have previously said, Wales is often ignored in these debates due to the loudness of the SNP and the ongoing situation in Northern Ireland. However one of the major areas of debate for Welsh devolution has been the Wales Bill, which had been written by Tories in Westminster to devolve selected powers to Cardiff. Although it now appears that the Wales Bill will receive the support of the Assembly, the fight for parity of powers remains.
The big news out of Cardiff today was that the Welsh Labour Party were going to vote in favour of the Wales Bill. Considering that Labour have 29 seats in the Assembly, only 2 more votes will be required for the bill to be accepted, however this is not going to be problematic as the Welsh Conservatives has said that they will vote in favour of the bill. This would mean that the bill would receive an additional 11 votes, and thus would pass irrespective of how Plaid Cymru, UKIP, and the Lib Dems vote.
The reason I’m covering this story is not that I wanted to publicise the fact that Labour are backing devolution, but to draw attention to the fact that Wales is getting shafted by Westminster. In the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum pro-unionist politicians described the UK as a “family of nations” and Scotland as an “equal partner”. Yet the same cannot be said for Wales, and the current Wales Bill illustrates this perfectly.
The bill currently being discussed would give the Welsh Assembly the ability to: run elections more effectively and amend election rules; boost energy production through infrastructure projects up to a certain size; and regulate transport. The bill also would lay the foundations for further devolution of fiscal powers, specifically income tax but there is chatter among Welsh pro-devolution activists of pushing to devolve VAT.
As a passionate believer in the decentralisation of power and emancipating the people in a democracy, radical I know, this bill is welcome. However, we need to drop the pretense that this is because the Tories are benevolent supporters of devolution. If the Tories really believed in devolution they would immediately rewrite the Wales Bill to give the Senedd the same level of powers as Holyrood. The fact that they are not doing this illustrates that there is an ulterior motive.
This motive is about power.The Tories want to maintain their power in Westminster but will devolve some more powers occasionally to pacify activists and politicians in Wales. But the other aspect of this is the ideological gap between Wales and England. The Welsh Assembly is dominated by Labour and as a result the Tories don’t want Wales to be more autonomous. If Wales was given more responsibility, left-wing parties would be able to experiment with policies deemed outrageous in London, and this would undermine the Tory narrative emanating from Westminster.
Devolution is a positive step forward and, despite the bill’s clear imperfections, I would be surprised if Plaid Cymru didn’t vote with Labour and the Tories. Nevertheless it would be foolish to believe that adopting the Wales Bill will significantly transform the UK’s constitutional settlement. On the day after the Wales Bill comes into law the calls from across the country need to be loud and clear: give Wales the same powers as Scotland. Sustained pressure will bring about the change that Wales needs. It is unfair for the Tories to argue against secession on the grounds of equality of status between nations, and then do everything it can to keep hold of powers in London. Wales needs to stand tall on the same level as Scotland, and people across the UK should stand in solidarity with them.