The Secretary of State’s news conference this morning was probably the most wretched affair since John Morris unhappily faced the cameras almost exactly 37 years ago. It’s difficult to think of a Secretary of State in the intervening decades whose proposals for change have been so comprehensively rejected. In rejection both men were characteristically forthright. John Morris had little alternative and in truth neither did Stephen Crabb. Both had seen their proposals for devolved government roundly rejected. By the electorate in the first instance and by everyone else in the second. If Crabb couldn’t muster a majority in the Welsh Affairs Committee with it’s drafted-in majority then the unanimous rejection in the National Assembly must have been little surprise.
But let’s not be too churlish.
Crabb’s proposals were poorly thought-out, had little coherence and convinced no-one. His only achievement was to unite True Wales and Plaid Cymru. But his belated recognition of this is to be welcomed. I assume his announcement on the reductions in reservations, the abolition of the necessity test, his commitment to look again at ministerial consents and the establishment of a group to look at the issue of the legal jurisdiction along with his enforced “pause” for further thought will all receive a widespread welcome. And we must all recognise that this retreat is one which will allow further debate and discussion. And that is also a good thing.
However this is only half the story.
We are in this unsatisfactory situation because the Secretary of State made grandiose statements which he did not follow up with a robust and open process. Had he involved both the Welsh Government and the National Assembly as well as a broad section of Welsh society then he would not have been in this sad position today.
The new bill must be made-in-Wales and not simply presented to Wales.
The Secretary of State would now be well-advised to create a convention (on which he has been pressed for some time) or at least a joint Assembly-Parliamentary body to review and agree a new bill before its introduction. The Welsh Affairs Select Committee and the Assembly’s Constitutional and legislative Affairs Committee have both examined the bill and held a successful joint meeting. That model may be a good model to keep in mind either for a meeting before dissolution or to be revived once the new Assembly is elected on May 5th. By doing so and achieving a broad cross-party consensus the new bill would have a degree of legitimacy that the draft bill has failed to command. And it would at least help keep the trouble-makers quiet.
By creating this new consensus – and there is a broad consensus over many matters – then the Secretary of State will be able to proceed to legislate in good time and with goodwill restored. But he must also recognise that demanding a referendum over the somewhat obscure matter of the jurisdiction whilst at the same time rejecting the need for a referendum on tax powers is not something which has any credibility or intellectual coherence. Best put in the same bin as the necessity test.
And neither is it acceptable that the provisions of this bill will sit on the Statute Book for two or three or four years until 2021 before being commenced. All provisions should be enacted and commenced with no such delay. In Scotland there is an election taking place with powers that were announced, debated, enacted and commenced in less than two years. It is simply not acceptable that in Wales we need to wait at least five years for far fewer powers. And this will mean that the new powers on elections and structures will not be available until the 2026 election – a full decade after they were announced.
If the Secretary of State is able to recognise that there are many of us in all parties who wish to move from a decades-long debate on the constitution and want to focus on the major social and economic issues facing the country then he will achieve his ambition of a robust, stable and long-lasting settlement. However I believe that many of us will not simply agree to any settlement and will not feel well-disposed to a bill which is made in Whitehall for Whitehall and not made in Wales and for Wales. However we are, this evening, closer to a potential settlement than we were this morning. Crabb has recognised, as did John Morris, that there was an elephant on his doorstep. Back in 1979 that was the end of it. The people had spoken. And had spoken in primary colours.
Today in a much different and changed world the message is also different but in some ways is unchanging. Constitutional change cannot be either forced or imposed. By working together the changes that most people agree are needed, can be made, and made with consent and support. It is now a matter for the Secretary of State to reach out and to work with Wales.