…who’s the most devolutionary of them all?
In a comment on a recent post, ‘Adam’ took me to task for not recognising that there were things in Plaid’s manifesto which the other parties could not say. Specifically, he mentioned “devolution of police and criminal justice, the coastguard, broadcasting, natural resources, teachers pay and conditions, various stuff regarding rail and of course it speaks independence”. I hadn’t seen the other manifestos at that point, but I have now, so it’s possible to examine the question more closely.
Firstly, on the question of Independence, the manifesto does indeed mention it, but it does so, as Adrian Masters astutely pointed out, only to immediately sideline it, saying that Wales will be better served during the next period by concentrating on further devolution in certain areas, and reform of Barnett.
Now for the rest of the list – and some other things which ‘Adam’ didn’t mention. The question was not whether other parties were uniquely saying that they would devolve certain matters, but whether it was only conceivable that one party could say that they would do so, consistent with the rest of what they have to say.
On police and criminal justice, the Lib Dems specifically say that they will press for such devolution and the Tories promise a White Paper on a legal jurisdiction for Wales. Carwyn Jones has also talked in the past about a separate legal jurisdiction for Wales, although it doesn’t appear in Labour’s manifesto, and the party now appears to be against it. Only Plaid specifically mention devolution of family courts, but it’s such a logical result of a Welsh jurisdiction that I can’t believe it would be a huge issue of principle.
On the Coastguard, only Plaid specifically mention it as a matter for devolution. Possibly unique, but I can’t see any obvious reason why the others couldn’t propose it; there’s nothing obviously inconsistent with the rest of what they say. And with the Ambulance and Fire Services already devolved, it would be a natural follow-on from policing, as the fourth emergency service.
On broadcasting, Labour say that they want to oblige broadcasters operating in Wales to “keep the National Assembly informed of their activities”. Not quite the same as devolving control, but a step in the same direction. The Tories want S4C to be the subject of some sort of ‘joint mechanism’ with Westminster. Again, not exactly devolution of broadcasting, but a step towards that.
On teachers’ pay and conditions, Plaid is the only party calling for devolution. But UK Governments have in the past supported ‘regional’ bargaining in some areas; I don’t find it completely inconceivable that they could support devolution in the right circumstances.
On rail services, the Tories want to explore the possibility of devolving Network Rail to Wales, and Labour say “that Network Rail should have a greater degree of accountability to the Assembly Government”.
Of the points raised by ‘Adam’, it is only when we start to talk about control of natural resources that I can really see that the claim that Plaid is unique in calling for further devolution might be made to stand up. The commitment, though, is pretty vague.
The manifesto says only “that Wales should have control over its own natural resources – wind, water, sun and tidal – and we will press for the devolution of responsibility for these areas as well as all energy generation projects”. Indeed, looking at all references to the question of natural resources in the manifesto, it is a phrase which always seems to be closely linked with the question of energy. And Plaid is not unique in calling for further devolution in the area of energy policy. The Tories want devolution of power on projects up to 100MW; the Lib Dems want power over ‘larger energy projects’; and Labour seek to devolve control of renewable (an odd limitation) consents up to 100MW.
Plaid also propose devolving the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency. Whilst Labour and Lib Dems don’t specifically propose devolving the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency, both do talk about bringing them together in one body, which implies to me that they have to have been devolved first.
On the question of taxation powers, it is the Lib Dems and Tories who are specifically proposing limited taxation powers. Labour explicitly rule out taxation powers, and Plaid link it to reform of Barnett, a rather more conditional form of support.
Plaid also propose devolving Job Search Services, the Food Standards Agency, and Research Funding. None of these look like being huge issues of principle to any of the other parties to me, although they are unique to Plaid’s manifesto.
Only one party also includes a more open-ended pledge to look at other matters which might be devolved – and that’s the Lib Dems.
So, to answer my opening question – who’s the most devolutionary? On balance, the answer would have to be Plaid. But, having sidelined the bigger question at the outset, it’s not quite the strong USP as which ‘Adam’ was trying to present it. Devolution of further powers is something which all parties are proposing (although the Labour Party is significantly less forthright on the matter than the rest). It’s not really therefore as strong a distinguishing feature as some might suggest.
The fact that calling for devolution of a range of specific responsibilities is something which all parties can convincingly do shows how far Wales has travelled, and how successful Plaid has been at shifting the centre of debate in a particular direction. But, even taking all the proposals together, Wales would still not have a Scottish-style parliament. That should be the next major step, but it's a goal for which none of the parties is promising to argue during the next Assembly term. And as long as the argument is not put, it will not be won.