Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Where's the logic?

In what must surely count as evidence of it being a slow news day, the Western Mail devotes almost an entire page to an edited version of a speech which Lord Hain has yet to deliver to the House of Lords opposing the idea of devolving income tax powers to Wales without a referendum.  

There is much in his argument with which I actually agree; devolving the power to set a proportion of the income tax levels in Wales without agreement on the Fiscal Framework does indeed create a serious danger that Wales will lose out financially in a big way.  And he is absolutely correct not to trust anything the Treasury says when it comes to funding Wales, although I suspect my distrust would go rather wider than his, since I am equally sceptical of Labour Treasury ministers.
He also makes the standard unionist argument about pooling and sharing resources.  Here, I start to part company with him; whilst I’ve long thought that to be one of the best arguments that the unionists have for maintaining the union, the problem is that it remains a theoretical argument, and unless backed up by action to ensure the “common welfare and decent standards of life for all citizens” which he lauds, then it’s not an argument which holds much weight for me.  And he loses it completely by referring to an annual subsidy of £15bn from the UK Treasury to Wales, a wilful and deliberate misinterpretation of the facts which is becoming standard unionist practice.
What I found completely missing in all of it however was any exposition of the rationale for making tax-raising powers subject to a referendum.  The question of whether the Assembly should or should not have the power to vary income tax rates, and what, if any, safeguards should be put in place to protect Wales’ financial position if it should happen, are entirely sensible subjects for debate, and, as mentioned above, I’d even agree with some of his concerns.  But how do we get from that position to a suggestion that there is a requirement for a specific referendum on that very limited question?  It’s a non-sequitur.
It’s true that at the time of the last referendum on legislative powers for the Assembly, some of those campaigning in favour stated that there would be no move to devolve income tax without a further referendum.  But that was a foolish thing to say at the time, and it was a promise which the campaigners were in no position to either make or keep.  That is not the sort of consideration which will deter a politician though.
I understand the argument for a further referendum if substantial further powers are to be transferred to Wales (although there’s a lot of scope for debate about what ‘substantial’ means’), and if a wide range of tax powers were to be included within that then I wouldn’t see a problem.  But the hang-ups that some have over devolving the power to vary a small element of one specific tax seem out of proportion, and look more like a method of blocking, or at least stalling, devolution to Wales than of arriving at a coherent position.
I suppose that’s not really new though.

1 comment:

HuwMeredydd said...

I think we should lay this £15bn subsidy business to bed once and for all. Any takers?