Western Mail: The Union needs to be recast, before pressure forces it apart

30 September 2019

By Sir Paul Silk

The Senedd’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee’s inquiry into Wales’ Changing Constitution is most opportune. Our Constitution is in flux in a way that it has not been for many years. This is a time when positive ideas need to be pushed forwards. Later today, the Marquess of Salisbury and I will be giving evidence to the Committee about the Constitution Reform Group (CRG) and our Act of Union Bill – introduced in the House of Lords in October 2018. The Bill forms a manifesto for the constitutional change that the CRG thinks is both necessary and inevitable. We are delighted that this important Senedd Committee wants to engage with us.

The CRG was an idea conceived by Lord Salisbury, a former Conservative Cabinet Minister. He chairs a Steering Group of politicians from Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Ulster Unionist parties (including Peter Hain and David Melding), as well as a few former officials, like me, and others. We will shortly be announcing that the Steering Group will have the powerful reinforcement of three Former First Ministers – from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We also have a wider group of correspondents who bring in, for example, financial or legal knowledge.

We all know about Wales’s juddering devolution journey. We decisively rejected devolution in 1979. When we just agreed to it in 1997, the model we were given was ill-thought through (we had had no Constitutional Convention), and has needed frequent revision. There have been four Acts of Parliament since 1997 governing Wales (contrast Scotland). And, despite the rather naïve wishful thinking of the Commission on Devolution in Wales that I chaired between 2011 and 2014, that devolution journey shows no sign of coming to an end – former Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd’s Commission will shortly be reporting on the devolution to Wales of the justice system.

More of us in Wales are becoming indy-curious. But independence is going to remain a more difficult sell in Wales than it is in Scotland. We are economically weaker – something that Plaid Cymru reasonably argues need not be the case, but simply is a fact for the foreseeable future. And we are more interlinked with England – in north-east Wales particularly, but also in the south-east (with increasing evidence of migration to rural Wales from urban England): our border with England is much more porous than the Scottish border.

The CRG does not support independence, but it does believe it is vital that the Union is a voluntary Union. So our Bill makes it clear that Wales can decide to become independent, and that it would be a decision of the Senedd and of the people of Wales, and them alone, to break our link with the Union.

The majority in Wales may not support independence, but opinion poll after opinion poll shows that they support devolution. But the devolution settlement is ragged, piecemeal and inconsistent in Wales, and across the UK. Our Bill is an attempt to introduce order, consistency, equality and principle across what is becoming a federalised country. It will reserve to Westminster some central areas – defence, foreign affairs and so on. But these reserved areas will be far less extensive than what is currently reserved. Under the Bill, the Senedd will have full control in all areas within its responsibilities, and Wales will be put on the same terms as Scotland. There will be separate High Courts for Wales and for England – an essential part of the creation of a distinct Welsh legal jurisdiction; and our proposals for a UK Funding Committee could be expected to result in a fairer method of financial redistribution within the Union than the Barnett formula. So the Bill delivers all that the Commission on Devolution wanted and more. That is why I am so pleased to be involved with it.

The possibility of the rupture of the Union makes it imperative to redesign the United Kingdom so that the countries of the United Kingdom want to remain in union. The reunification of Ireland and the independence of Scotland, both made more likely by Brexit (this is my view, though not in the view of all members of the CRG Steering Group – the Steering Committee contains both leavers and remainers), could leave Wales in a very uncomfortable position. From a Welsh viewpoint that is a powerful reason to make the Union more attractive to the Scots and to the people of Northern Ireland.

Our Bill is lengthy and ambitious, but it is certainly not the final article. It is work in progress and we have had many helpful suggestions over the last year. We expect to hear more ideas for improvement in the Senedd this afternoon – and, indeed, at Aberystwyth University, where we will be holding an open session on Thursday October 24th (we were in St Andrews last year, and go to Belfast soon). A new version of the Bill is likely to be introduced in the next parliamentary session.

Do visit our website http://www.constitutionreformgroup.co.uk and put your ideas in, or follow us on Twitter @ActofUnionBill. Even better, listen to us this afternoon or come to meet us in Aberystwyth next month.

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