Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Silly referendums

Last week, the idea of holding a referendum on income tax powers for Wales was branded as “probably the most stupid idea yet developed”.  Strong words, particularly given that members of all four parties signed up to holding a referendum as part of the Silk Commission.  But then coming from an academic rather than a politician, there is no need for the same restraint.  And as an ex-politician, I feel no constraint on agreeing with Roger Scully either.
But the fact that such a silly idea could ever have been agreed by all four parties tells a story in itself.  The precedent most widely used is that in the 1997 referendums, the Scots were asked two questions, whilst the Welsh were only asked one.  The difference was that the second question sought (and obtained) agreement to a limited power to vary income tax.  It’s a very poor precedent though; asking a supplementary question of detail at the same time as a much bigger question of principle is very different from asking that ‘supplementary’ question of detail in isolation.
The problem was compounded, largely by the First Minister himself, in the 2011 referendum, when in response to a woeful lack of confidence in the case for legislative devolution, he gave a commitment that devolution of income tax would not happen without a further referendum.  It was a wholly unnecessary commitment to make, and a silly one as well, as I thought at the time.  But the result is that those who opposed legislative powers will feel, with some justification, cheated if income tax is now devolved without the referendum which they feel was ‘promised’.  And since many of those are people within the Labour Party in Wales, that brings us right back to where we’ve always been on devolution in Wales – what does or does not happen is largely a result of the internal divisions of one party.
Perhaps things have moved on; perhaps the First Minister could now carry his party with him in taking the next step without a further referendum; perhaps the fact that the circumstances have changed will make it possible for him to try.  Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.  At this stage, I’m not optimistic.  We’ve been trapped into a ‘stupid’ referendum because of the Labour Party’s internal problems, and may need to find an alternative way around it.
But if we can’t sensibly hold a meaningful referendum on this single issue, and can’t avoid it either, is there an alternative?  I’m not a fan of unnecessary referendums, but if we’re going to have one, and need to make it more meaningful, why not put together a package which offers Wales parity with Scotland on all issues and put that to a vote?  All the signs are that that would be a winnable campaign for those of us who support further change, and it would be much more meaningful than a simple vote on income tax.


Anonymous said...

The main arguement I remember (origionally) about the need for a referendum re: (income) tax was that the Assembly had bo powers over tax and therefore for a new precedent a referendum would be needed. But if Stamp duty and the landfill tax are being devolved without a referendum then the Assembly will have responsibilities over some taxes. As income tax is just another tax (albeit raising substantionally more than the others mentioned)the precedent is already set so why the need for a referendum?

Anonymous said...

Referendums do have a role as the latest one up in Scotland has shown.

Other than England all the provinces of the United Kingdom are divided in so many more ways than one. Referenda can often starkly indicate such divisions.

Scotland will, in time, partition into a pro-UK area and independent rump. I wish the same for Wales but I suspect we may well have to divide into at least three units such are our linguistic problems.

Such changes will not happen overnight. They will occur democratically and referenda will ensure such.

John Dixon said...

Anon 13:21,

"the precedent is already set so why the need for a referendum?"

Logically, there is no need, of course. But we're dealing with politicians, not logicians, and given that all four parties signed up to a silly referendum, the question is how we get out of that.

Anon 16:31,

I'm not against referendums, and didn't say that I was. But I think that they're best used on issues of principle rather then detail - otherwise, we'll be holding a never-ending stream of them. And I'll ignore (again) your obsession with partitioning Wales to suit your misunderstanding of linguistic geography.

Anonymous said...

the question is how we get out of that.

Given Carwyn's inherent ability to constantly change the goal posts I'm sure he could come up with an answer. I suppose the real question is how do we make it in Labours interest to mot hold a referendum?

Anonymous said...

Why be afraid of a referendum? Nothing to do with this is it?

6 out of eight polls that asked if Income tax powers should be devolved come up with "NO". As Carwyn has observed...a referendum on the issue is "losable".

Wales has shown no appetite to take on these powers and although the Tory party wants us to have them, a quick look at the polls shows Tory voters strongly against.

John Dixon said...


The basic problem with your comment is that the initial premise is wrong. No-one has said here that they're 'afraid' of a referendum; that fear seems to be a product of your imagination.

The message from polls on the specific issue of income tax over a period, even in the link you provide, is mixed; about the only thing which is certain is that very few people would even bother to vote.

Thee is though, a huge leap of non-logic from a reasoned discussion on what should or not require a referendum to an assertion that anyone who doesn't think one is necessary on a specific issue must be 'afraid' of it.