It’s one of those sentences which was to him probably just stating the obvious, and it’s easy to skip over it in the context of a lengthy speech. But what exactly does it mean? He gave us no clue as to what he means by “strictly necessary”; but defining what the phrase means is key to understanding what, if anything, he was actually saying.
To me the obvious interpretation of the phrase in the context of that speech is that “only those powers which cannot possibly be exercised at a Welsh level must remain at a UK level”. However, any rational consideration would have to conclude that there is actually nothing which cannot be done at a Welsh level. There are after all EU members smaller than Wales who manage perfectly well without an intermediate level of government between themselves and Brussels. So whatever he meant, it clearly wasn’t that.
Of course whether it is desirable to exercise all powers at a Welsh level or whether that’s the best thing to do are different questions entirely, and go to the heart of the debate between nationalists and unionists about the future of our nation. But “desirable”, and “best”, don’t strike me as being sufficient criteria to define something as being “strictly necessary”.
It seems to me that there must in fact be a further criterion in operation here, one which the First Minister chose not to refer to, but one which is in effect a very severe constraint on his “presumption in favour of devolution”.
I rather suspect that that second criterion is his firm conviction that the United Kingdom must continue to exist. Nothing wrong with that, although I would, of course, disagree with him. But if the constraint on devolving powers to Wales is that enough powers must remain at the centre to justify the continued existence of the centre, which is the only conclusion I can draw if I’m right about his second criterion, then he really seems to have said very little at all.
“We need to retain at the centre those powers which are necessary to ensure the continued existence of the centre”, isn’t much of a presumption in favour of devolution at all.