Thursday 3 March 2011

Asking different questions

Over the past few weeks, one consistent theme of the ‘yes’ camp has been to ask “Where should laws only affecting Wales be made?”.  It’s a good question, and asked like that, there’s only one sensible answer.  But it doesn’t really answer the implicit question being asked by those who have their doubts, which is “Why should laws only affecting Wales be made?”.
There are only a few letters different between the two questions; but the second is the much more philosophical of the two, even if is really an argument about the principle of devolution rather than the change which will happen after today’s vote. 
At first sight, it appears to highlight a real ideological difference between those who support devolved decision-making and those who don’t.  At a very simplistic level, one either supports the idea that there should be a single consistent set of laws, or one supports the idea that allowing different areas (nations/ regions/ as you wish) to decide their own laws in some areas is a better approach.
It’s interesting to observe, however, that many (most?) of those who support the idea that there should be a single consistent set of laws applying to the UK are also amongst the most vociferous opponents of the idea that there should be a single consistent set of laws applying to the countries of the EU.  So I guess that there’s rather more unanimity around the idea that not all decisions should be taken centrally and that some should be taken more locally than the past few weeks suggest; the argument is more about what we mean by ‘central’ and ‘local’.
There are those who attempt to simplify this by splitting the debaters into Welsh nationalists and British nationalists; but I consider that a less than adequate response.  I call myself a Welsh nationalist, but it doesn’t follow that I believe that all laws in Wales should be made centrally; I don’t see why some cannot be made even more locally*, and I'm quite happy to cede some power to larger units to make decisions as well.  Similarly, there are people who would admit to being British nationalists (or perhaps more correctly UK nationalists) who fully support devolved law-making within the UK.
So, given the apparent general acceptance in principle that some things should be done ‘centrally’ and others ‘locally’, is the debate really no more complicated than a difference of opinion about what the ‘right’ units are for making which decisions?
* There is a separate question over how we define ‘laws’ as well; what is the difference in effect between a decision made by a local authority applying to its area and a decision made by the Assembly applying to the whole of Wales?  But that’s for another day… 


Jeff Jones said...

One of the interesting things about today's referendum is the possible effect of the good old law of unintended consequences. If it is good enough for laws affecting Wales to be only made in Wales then logically the same thing must apply in England. I would not be surprised once all the devolved administrations have full lawmaking powers if the Tories argue that MPs from the devolved administrations should be excluded from any bill which just involves England. This could place any future Labour Government in a very interesting position if its majority in the Commons depended on Welsh and Scottish MPs as it did in 2005. Effectively it would not be able to get legislation for England only through the Commons. As far as taxation is concerned those Assembly members who are arguing that they don't want tax powers should realise that in England the Tories are proposing measures which will see one third of councils not having to rely on any central government grant. We would then have the absurd situation of a legislative body having less direct financial powers than an English Council. As you rightly point out in another post AMs are not totally in charge of where this journey will end. How can they argue for example,for the same powers as Scotland when the Scottish Parliament is on the verge of accepting tax varying powers.

Unknown said...

John Major - in a desperate attempt to appease his euro-sceptic knights of the sires, made great use of the concept of 'subsidiarity' - which is indeed written into the EU constitutions! The idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.

Of course, he could see no level of credible government bellow the UK parliament. How times have changed!

John Dixon said...


Like so much of what the previous government did in relation to devolution, their approach seems at times to have assumed a Labour government in perpetuity, at both UK level and in Wales and Scotland. And as long as everyone owes their allegiance to the same leader, it might, just about, be made to work. But an alternative administration, such as we now have, only needs to change the rules once...