Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Challenging 'obvious' assumptions

Yesterday, ClickonWales published an article by Labour AM, Mike Hedges, arguing for a long-term devolution settlement for Wales.  Whilst thinking aloud by Labour politicians is generally something to be welcomed, the problem with this one is that it did more to highlight the underlying axiomatic beliefs driving Labour than it contributed to original thought on the question of devolution.
Let’s start with the basic premise: that “We have had three devolution settlements for Wales and we are no closer to a long term settlement than we were before the first”.  As statements of fact go, it can’t be faulted; but the underlying assumption (i.e. that there should be a long term settlement) goes undiscussed and unchallenged - it is merely taken as read.  But why?  What is it about the constitutional relationship between England and Wales which requires us to draw up a settlement at a point in time and then stick to it?  In fairness, it isn’t just Mike Hedges and the Labour Party who suffer from this mental blockage; the Tories have been heard often saying the same thing, although they usually put it in pejorative terms such as ‘stop obsessing about the constitution and use the powers you’ve got’. 
And that, actually, illustrates the real reason why the UK parties are so keen to reach a point where they can claim that there is a long-term settlement; they want to put a limit on how far the process can go.  Perhaps they don’t all want to put the limit in the same place, and Mike Hedges seems to be willing to go further than many others, but ultimately, the wish for a long-term settlement is about reaching a point where the process can be halted rather than advancing it.  And there’s nothing wrong with that per se; it’s a valid position to hold, but it would be better if they could be more honest about their intention.
There is another aspect to my challenge about what’s wrong with a continuing process as well.  The situation in which Wales has found itself, from the outset of devolution with the referendum in 1997, has been as the subject of an interplay of forces, sometimes between parties, but more noticeably within one party in particular, Labour.  At no point has anyone really sat down and thought about what would be the right thing to do (and fair play to Mike Hedges - that seems to be what he wants to do): the outcome has always been a question of compromise at a point in time.  This particular contribution to debate is just one position amongst many.  I see zero prospect of it becoming the accepted position of his party, which means that the tensions between different players will continue.  Moving forward one compromise at a time is the best that Wales can hope for; and in that context talk of anything being for the long-term is just wishful thinking.
But there’s a second aspect to the question of axiomatic beliefs revealed by the article as well.  Whilst I can’t disagree with the statement that “Surely the question to be asked is what needs to be controlled by Westminster in order to benefit the whole of the United Kingdom as opposed to what each ministerial department desires to keep under its control”, which makes eminent sense from a unionist perspective, it leaves open the question of how we decide what fits where.  How do we define ‘needs to be controlled’?  Fear not, because for Hedges, the answer is ‘obvious’ – “There are the obvious areas that need to be held centrally: Defence, Foreign affairs, national security, currency, interest rates, overseas aid, immigration, Driver and car licensing, central bank and National Insurance numbers”
Declaring something to be ‘obvious’ is a way of trying to avoid challenge or debate, but I could look at any of those areas and argue for an element of devolution, even within a continued union.  Why for instance, must driver and vehicle licensing be a central function?  In the light of Brexit, there have already been proposals that Wales and Scotland should be able to set their own immigration quotas if they wish – why is it ‘obvious’ that they should not, and that ‘immigration’ must be centrally controlled?  Even in what is perhaps the most ‘obvious’ of all, Defence, why would it be impossible for, for instance, fishery protection using armed patrol boats (normally the preserve of the Royal Navy) to be devolved?  I’m not proposing any of these as policies here, merely challenging why they are axiomatically ruled out.
If we’re serious about asking what ‘needs’ to be controlled by Westminster, all of these should be open to debate.  Closing them all off on the basis of their being ‘obvious’ is another indication of an attempt to set limits on devolution, not debate what it should look like if we started with a clean sheet.

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