Tuesday 1 March 2011

Repeating the mistakes of the past

I hope that Russell Goodway has by now honoured the pledge he made yesterday and voted yes in the referendum, but I was fascinated by his reasons for descending from the fence on which he appeared to be sitting just a few days ago.  It seems to be based on the ‘assurances’ that he has been given that there will not be another referendum seeking more powers in the near future.  Apparently, it’s the leadership of the Labour Party who have given him those assurances.
It’s not the only time in recent weeks that I have seen some ‘assurances’ about the future being given.  Carwyn Jones has said that tax-varying powers are not needed, and some ‘yes’ campaigners have said that there cannot be tax-varying powers without a further referendum, for instance.
The question that struck me was this - on what basis is anyone in any position to give such assurances?  At best they can only be expressing a personal preference or making a personal pledge that they will not support further powers; they cannot speak with authority for Wales as a whole. 
I’m not actually expecting, or calling for, an early referendum on any further devolution.  We do need to be clear, however, that there are some issues (such as taxation and borrowing powers, or fiscal responsibility as I'd prefer to see it) which are not going to magically disappear on Friday morning.  And the idea that the outcome of this week’s referendum somehow freezes a settlement for the foreseeable future is palpable nonsense; nothing stays static for long.
I don’t believe that any and every change necessarily requires a referendum to be held either; but we do need to try and get a greater degree of consensus about which changes do and which do not require a referendum, rather than issuing assurances based on purely personal perspectives.  Surely the one lesson we should learn from this particular plebiscite is that holding referenda on the wrong issues is a silly thing to do.  A referendum on an issue of principle is a useful tool;  promised future referenda to buy off political opponents in the present are not.
There is a danger here that we repeat the mistakes of the past, and end up creating a position where any or every future change needs to be preceded by a referendum on the basis that ‘you promised it’.  That would imply that we have learned nothing from the Part 3 vs. Part 4 fiasco.


Cibwr said...

We also need to move away from a system that determines the future of Wales based on the internal needs of the Labour Party. If we had only had a national convention prior to devolution we would have avoided many of the issues that now face us. Unfortunately Labour said that civil society in Wales was not up to it and we had a stitch up that would keep most sections of the Labour party happy.

John Dixon said...

The problem, Cibwr, is that some in the Labour Party have some difficulty in understanding that there's a difference between the interests of the Labour Party and the interests of Wales. They've spent so much time thinking that Labour is the 'natural' party of Wales that the only debate that matters to them is that which happens internally to the Labour Party. From that limited perspective there is no need to involve anyone else in the debate, and provided that they reach a position which resolves their own internal argument, then all is well.

The good news is that there is a newer generation which recognises the untenability of that position; the bad news is that some of them are still in place, and have great influence still.

Anonymous said...

Nothing is going to stop me debating and campaiging for Wales to become a proper self-governing nation state.

Labour said in the 2007 Scottish election that there was no need to develop the devolution settlement there. Less than four years later, they're for the Calman report ... with no need for a referendum.

I don't know what will happen in the future but Wales isn't going to stand still for Goodway or anyone else. Goodway - the man who didn't want to see Cardiff becoming a true capital city and all the economic and cultural benefits that brings. What does he know about anything!?

Jeff Jones said...

Whether they want more powers or not is pretty irrelevant in many ways. It is quite clear that the UK Coalition wants to see more financial responsibility being devolved. In England certain councils,for example, will become free councils with the right to keep all non domestic rates. In Scotland we have the Scottish Bill which will introduce tax varying and borrowing powers. After a yes vote on Thursday the least you can expect is for the Treasury ministers to offer Wales Calman style powers. Of course the Assembly government can reject this offer but where then does that leave the 'brave new confident Wales' we are told will emerge this Friday? The call to reform the present system of electing AMs will also increase when the new UK constituencies are drawn up in 2013. No democrat,for example, can accept a situation where the number of regional AMs who are effectively selected by party members and not directly elected by voters could increase. Politics always evolves and those who believe that Thursday effectively draws a line under further change could be in for a shock. The debate about where devolution in the UK should actually end up still has a long way to go.

John Dixon said...


Not for the first time recently, we're largely in agreement.

"Of course the Assembly government can reject this offer [Calnan-style powers] but where then does that leave the 'brave new confident Wales' we are told will emerge this Friday? "

Quite. And in his wish to avoid scaring the horses, Carwyn Jones looks to me to have backed himself into a corner where he might indeed have to try and say no or else appear to be backtracking on what he's said in this campaign.

"Politics always evolves and those who believe that Thursday effectively draws a line under further change could be in for a shock."

Completely agree. I'm not planning to stop arguing for Independence (and nor is Anon above); and others will argue other cases.

But the key point which your comment underlined is that the initiative may not always come from Wales anyway. Not so long ago, this would have seemed like an odd thing to say, but it looks increasingly possible that some changes (Network Rail in Wales? Calnan?) will be forced upon the Assembly Government - and that they might find themselves resisting such responsibilities. It's a strange old world sometimes.

Plaid Panteg said...

Hi John,

It is something I raised before and still think needs further debate.

There needs to be a far more collegiate approach about the issue of what requires a referendum and what does not.

Is it beyond our political leaders to at least establish a roadmap regarding this?

Qualifying this somewhat - it maybe the case that don't take these steps, or we do at a different speed to how we envisage etc. The point being we don't have some point scoring argument about this not needing a referendum etc.

And of course - what about if Westminster GIVES the assembly powers? In Scotland the government is being given powers. Given Carwyn's response to Clegg's offer to move the election date, I dread to think of the childish response if the ConDems offer more powers!

The the GoWA and the move from part 3 to 4 has been a farce that even Labour have campaigned on the notion it was crap, expensive etc.

Will write a blog on this, drafted yesterday. Great minds and all that.

Spirit of BME said...

The problem with people in power is that their heads are so far extended into that part of their body were the world is dark, that learning from their mistakes is dismissed by the fact that they create a new reality of their own.
This referendum looks to me like the last spin of the dice for this experiment in the Bay and burn out and inertia will follow, as an inability to get the right powers to meet the economic needs will render it less loved than it is now.
This is not a problem for the English Parties in Wales as they can get their hands on power in Cardiff or London, but to Plaid Cymru the great hope will be seen for what it always was – “a creature of Westminster” and those members that have been on “air and gas” will have re-enter the real world with a hard landing, if they have any interest in fulfilling Plaids Aims and Mission.

Anonymous said...

'Plaid's aims and ambitions'? Don't make me laugh. They've become the same as the rest, only in it for their own 'aims and ambitions'. Stop deluding yourself.

DaiTwp said...

"After a yes vote on Thursday the least you can expect is for the Treasury ministers to offer Wales Calman style powers. Of course the Assembly government can reject this offer but where then does that leave the 'brave new confident Wales' we are told will emerge this Friday?"

But surely the excuse Carwyn James will use is the "clause" in the Holtham report where he states that any fiscal powers should be based firstly on a sound needs based funding formula.

i.e. no tax powers with out the reform of Barnet.

And ofcourse although the ConDems have made positive noises about devolved limited tax powers, the noises they've made about Barnet reform have been anything but.

Carwyn's get out of jail card?

John Dixon said...

"Carwyn's get out of jail card?"

It may well be the card he tries to play, but somehow I doubt it gets him off the hook. I think offering some tax-varying powers would be quite a clever move by the UK Government. In reality, if it's limited to varying one tax only, it's of little use, which I guess is why the Scottish Government has already decided not to use it.

Refusing it would look as petulant as Carwyn Jones has managed to look on other issues. Provided the reduction in block grant exactly matches the amount of income tax which the Assembly Government is allowed to vary, then it's probably better to accept it (thus establishing the principle of tax-varying powers), and not use it (thus keeping a common UK level of income tax) than to refuse it.

It is a real possibility that borrowing powers - similar to hose already enjoyed even by community councils in Wales - would also be on offer, and that would be far more useful to Wales - definitely not something to be refused.

Tax-varying powers wouldn't come into their own unless they included the power to vary a range of taxes in order to give the Welsh Government more leverage over the economy.

DaiTwp said...

"In reality, if it's limited to varying one tax only, it's of little use, which I guess is why the Scottish Government has already decided not to use it."

That would be unlikely though surely. It seems far more likely if powers over tax are offered it would be along the lines of those being offered to Scotland through Calman. Again if (and it's still quite a big 'if') the Westminister decided to devolve revenue raising powers it would be to increase accountability for the Assembly's spending, something that the limited power over income tax that the Scottish Parliment presently has stops well short of achieving (hence why it has never been used).
Surely Westminster would want to devolve the appropriate financial powers (along with the nessacary formulas) to force the hands of the devolved admistrations in taking more responsibilty over (what the ConDems see as) frivilous spending (e.g. school breakfasts, bus passes, prescriptions, hospital parking etc.).

Again, as always the devil is in the detail and this will provide lots of wriggle room for Carwyn Jones. If, however they offered to impliment the Holtham report (including reform of the funding formula) of course, Carwyn would have nowhere to go, but that is highly unlikely.

My own guess (based simply on what I've read/heard i.e. complete stab in the dark) is the Holtham report will be kicked into the long grass and Westminster will comission something along the lines of Calman for Wales. incredably, this report will see no need for reforming Barnet (MAYBE a compromise along the lines of a "Barnet floor" as has been mentioned before) and will recommend financial powers along the lines of the Scottish Calman and maybe other fields of law-making responsibility (which will be used to squeeze the funding by not passing all of the funding needed to cover the extra responsibilities, through some impossibly complex formula understood by no-one, not even the ones who invented it).

John Dixon said...


Calman's main proposal was related to Income Tax, and was limited to changing the basic rate within certain parameters, not the structure and banding etc. Although some other taxes (Stamp Duty, Land Tax, Aggregates Levy, Landfill Tax, and Air Passenger Duty) were also proposed to be devolved, these are hardly the major economic levers.

There was also a proposal to allow the introduction of completely new taxes, but this required consent from Westminster in each case. So, whilst I'd accept that it is not entirely accurate to refer to this as the power to vary one tax only, in practical terms it does not go far beyond that.

It did, though, argue that the remainder of the block grant should be allocated on need (Barnett reform anyone?), and it did offer borrowing powers, which I see as the most significant gain for Wales in a Calman-type settlement.

And, if it offers that sort of package, I don't see how Carwyn Jones or anyone else can reasonably refuse it, even if it is potentially a poisoned chalice. Hence my reference to it as a 'clever' move by HMG in London.