Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Karl Marx, Brian Rix, and Carwyn Jones

The publication of the Silk report this week marks yet another step along the road to a sensible and coherent devolution settlement for Wales.  But it does seem to be more of a stumble than a step.  And, not for the first time, I think that the finger of suspicion for yet another fudge points firmly in the direction of the Labour Party, even if they’ve managed to get away with hiding the fact behind an ‘all-party’ commission.
It’s true, of course, that we would still be without an Assembly of any kind in Wales were it not for the Labour Party.  But it has always looked as though devolution for Wales was something into which they were bounced by the enthusiasm of the late John Smith and others in Scotland, and bounced reluctantly to boot.  So whilst the fact of devolution is down to the Labour Party, so is its form, and particularly the painfully slow progress, with each step marking yet another attempt to paper over that party’s internal disagreements.
That it makes sense for any elected government spending large sums of money to have at least a degree of responsibility for raising the money that it spends rather than holding out a begging bowl is obvious to most.  But the miserable little collection of minor taxes which might potentially be devolved without holding another referendum simply does not achieve that objective.  Without the devolution of at least one major tax, such as income tax, any expectation that it will make much of a difference is misplaced.
Of course, I’m in favour of devolving all taxes, so the Mandy Rice Davies response would be a natural one, but in all seriousness, the ability to modify the rate of landfill tax will neither make the Welsh Government more accountable nor give it much of a lever for economic policy.
I don’t entirely disagree with the assertion by Carwyn Jones and the Labour Party that there are dangers in not resolving the Barnett issue first.  Of course there are, but when we know that there’s no hope of any early resolution of the Barnett issue, it looks as though that question is being used as more of a fig leaf to hide opposition to tax-varying powers.  Both issues need resolving, but the link is by no means as absolute as is being claimed.
It was of course Carwyn Jones who claimed during the last referendum campaign that taxation powers would ‘require’ a referendum.  It was a ‘requirement’ based more on the timid pragmatism of himself and his government and his own party’s continued internal disagreements over devolution than one based on any great constitutional principle.  But once he’d stated it, it was always going to be difficult to do a u-turn later.
Reports suggest that the Silk Commission was unanimous in its recommendations and had no difficulty reaching that unanimity.  How much of that ‘unanimity’ was real hard agreement as opposed to a pragmatic recognition that Labour Party support was dependent on coming up with the ‘right’ answers isn’t clear – and may not be so for some time, I’d guess.  But it’s hard to see any logic other than such pragmatism in the referendum proposal.  And it’s even harder to see any logic at all in the proposed multiple locks which all need to be opened before we can even hold a vote – it all looks more like an attempt to block taxation powers than to devolve them.
It was Marx who said that history always repeats itself twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.  Farce may turn out to be an understated description of the proposal to hold yet another referendum, learning nothing from the last.  How many farces can Labour stage before the audience realises that the butt of the joke is us?

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