Constitutional reform for beginners

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It hasn’t been a good week for Britain.

I wrote earlier in the week to express my disappointment with the latest draft Wales Bill. A disappointment that appears to be widely shared across political parties and the Welsh political community. I am yet to see or hear of any non-Conservative speaking up in support of Crabb’s lasting settlement.

The Conservatives are not natural constitutional reformers and yesterday’s vote on English laws is an example of their intellectual confusion on such things. Yesterday the House of Commons was compelled to vote for constitutional change which is again ill-thought out and will create far more problems that it solves.

I cannot believe that Welsh Conservatives danced happily through the Aye lobby yesterday afternoon, excited at the prospect of losing their votes on whole swaths of legislation which is critical to the success of their government and in some cases will help define this government.

And this creates a real lasting problem for the whole of the UK Parliament and especially its Celtic members. Stephen Crabb has indicated that he would like, one day, to serve in the UK Cabinet in a different role. Which is entirely understandable and in the past a wholly reasonable ambition. But which role could a Welsh MP now fulfil? It would be curious at best to see a Minister taking through legislation upon which they themselves could not vote. And if it becomes impossible for an MP representing a seat outside of England to serve in a number of middle-ranking roles in the UK cabinet then the chances of our MPs reaching the great offices of state become reduced, and the chances of a Welsh MP becoming Prime Minister are reduced even further. And this is not simply an issue for the over-ambitious backbencher. It is a significant problem for the future of the UK as a multi-national state.

And if the location of an MP’s seat is the defining issue in terms of the legislation they consider then why do MPs from England continue to sit on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee and take evidence on issues which affect only Wales? Surely consistency would demand their removal?

The hard reality is that this measure does and will create conflict within the legislature. And that is always a bad thing. And it creates conflict in the process of law-making. Take the Localism Act from the last Parliament. A UK Act where different clauses and different sections applied in different ways to different parts of the UK. Some clauses has a UK application, others a GB application, and then others applied to England and some to Wales and England. In the current Parliament such a bill would now have different MPs voting on different clauses and different sections. Would English MPs have a vote on sections which apply only to Wales?

It’s probably true to suggest that there has been a sense amongst many English Members that the Celts get an easy ride, voting on schools etc in England and then free to complain about the decisions of the devolved institution in their own country over which they have no control and little influence. The real tragedy here is that this is a Westminster fix for an issue which is a UK-wide and goes to heart of the sort of state we want the UK to be in the future.

Now it’s not for people like me to dictate how devolution should work for English communities but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that where the UK Conservative Government has a radical and reforming agenda which is at once exciting and far-reaching is where it speaks of a northern powerhouse and devolving significant powers, budgets and responsibilities to groups of English councils. It is done with consent and without referenda. A lesson there for Wales. It would appear that were this agenda to be pursued across large parts of England then the demand for English votes in the House of Commons would become irrelevant. Here the future House of Commons would have differential responsibilities for different parts of the UK. No-one is advantaged and no-one disadvantaged.

I discovered last week a document that had been buried deep in the background papers for the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee. The document was the Welsh Government’s submission to the House of Lords Constitutional Committee’s enquiry into the Union and Devolution. The reason that I mention it is that it contains almost the only intelligent analysis on the future shape and nature of the UK state that I have seen in the last twenty years or so. It is recommended reading. Honestly.

It is a tragedy that the UK Government has been unable or unwilling to publish a similar document outlining their vision for the future shape of the UK state. The constitutional convention appears further away than ever at a time when it is needed more than ever.

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