Tuesday 8 December 2009

Her most gracious secretaryship

A few weeks ago, Cameron announced that he would not block an application from the Assembly for a referendum under the Government of Wales Act. It's quite kind of the leader of the Conservatives in Wales, Cheryl Gillan, to spell out in a bit more detail that we will be allowed a referendum on implementing Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act within two years if her party wins the election in England. The wishes of the people of Wales, as expressed through a vote in the elected National Assembly, do not seem to be for her a major factor in deciding the timing.

From her perspective, it probably sounds like an entirely reasonable response, but the underlying attitude displayed is one that says that powers are theirs to give rather than ours to take. And it seems to me that it is an attitude based on an implicit assumption about who 'owns' powers in the first place.

The unwritten UK constitution is quite clear - all power has been vested by God in the monarch who graciously allows parliament to exercise most of it on his or her behalf. For me, power belongs to the people, who allow governments to exercise it collectively on behalf of all of us.

In practice, the result usually looks much the same - a parliamentary democracy; but the underlying difference in attitude comes to the surface when we start debating constitutional futures. I start from the view that Wales as a nation has the right to govern itself any time that the people of Wales so decide, and that the debate is about whether we should or should not exercise that right.

Tories start from the viewpoint that it is for London to decide how much power should be passed to Wales and when; and that we have to justify to them what power we want and why. In that respect, much of what many in the Labour Party say is based on the same perspective; Hain's attitude to 'allowing' us a referendum is not that dissimilar, and the Labour-Tory attitude to LCOs has been pretty consistent.

I can understand how a party such as the Tories which is, and always has been, so tightly wedded to the top-down idea of sovereignty, reacts in the way it does, and why Gillan's statement would seem to them to be so utterly reasonable. I have rather more difficulty in understanding how the Labour Party – founded, after all, on egalitarian principles - adopts in practice such a similar approach to who 'owns' power.

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