Saturday, 16 January 2021

Rewording the problem isn't a solution


Yesterday’s post referred to the report produced by a fringe group of members of the Labour Party on the subject of what they called ‘radical federalism’. The post concentrated in particular on the way that the report failed to address the huge issue of England, and its built-in majority in the current UK parliament. It gets worse than that. The detail of which powers would reside where reveals that this is really a proposal to reverse some aspects of devolution and return key powers to Westminster.

As things currently stand, the Senedd has significant powers in areas such as health, education, and housing to set its own standards and priorities. Under the ‘radical’ proposals put forward in this report, whilst what they refer to as the parliaments of “the historic nations of the UK” would be “responsible for their economies, infrastructure and the health and welfare of their populations”, they could only exercise their powers in the context of minimum standards for “health, social welfare, human rights, education and housing across the UK”. Whilst the devolved parliaments would be allowed to exceed those standards, they would be acting outside their powers if they ever fell below them. This is not the recognition of the sovereignty of those historic nations which they claim it to be so much as the imposition of further constraints on what they can do. It amounts to reclaiming currently devolved powers for the centre. In effect, they are proposing that England sets the standards and the other administrations must follow.

If England (through its majority in the UK Parliament) decides to change any of those standards, why should Wales be obliged to follow, even if the Welsh Government considers that its immediate priority, taking account of Welsh needs, lies elsewhere? That is, surely, a political question and, ultimately, a matter for political debate between the different parties in their campaigns for the Senedd. What they propose is, effectively, devolution of administration rather than policy.

In its introduction, the report quotes, apparently with approval, Gordon Brown saying that “…we have devolution but still a centralist mindset. We have, in theory, a decentralised constitution with supposed local powers of initiative, but a unitary state that won’t let go”. It then goes on to propose a solution which precisely replicates the problem. Calling something ‘radical’ doesn’t make it so.

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