A very British revolution

Last Tuesday afternoon I sat in the chamber and listened to the debate on the regulations which will pave the way for the formal repeal of the Law Derived from the European Union (Wales) Act. For those fortunate souls who have not been subjected to the whole of the debate on Brexit, this is the continuity legislation which became law last summer. It was passed to protect the settlement in response to the publication of the draft EU Withdrawal Bill and was superseded by the Inter-Governmental Agreement with the UK Government over the powers which will accrue to the National Assembly as a consequence of Brexit. 

It isn’t so long ago that the First Minister described the EU Withdrawal Bill as the most fundamental attack on devolved government since 1999. And he was right. So we should not understate the importance of the repeal of this legislation. Nor should we limit our understanding of the agreement to the simplicity of the use of powers following Brexit. This agreement is more than about the suite of powers under immediate consideration. It is about the concept of where power lies in the UK. And that is a much bigger issue. And in this new settlement not a single power is lost but a process of joint decision-making created.

Taken together it is little short of a triumph. 

The debate was led by Mark Drakeford, with interventions from all sides and including those Members speaking on behalf of the Assembly committees who had examined the legislation. It is fair to say that on all sides of the chamber there were some expressions of the reservations and concerns over the course of action being proposed. But more fundamentally there was a wide recognition of the work and achievements of the Welsh Government in negotiating this agreement. 

In fact the agreement, which if I am being completely fair has involved some soul-searching for many of us, represents compromise on all sides. But it is also a revolutionary document. In a very British sort of way. 

Looking at Westminster from a distance the Palace can sometimes appear to be more and more of an anachronism is today’s world. An island almost set apart from the country it seeks to govern. And this is a place with its own rules and its culture. Despite the exertions of the Upper House there have been times as the debates and legislation over Brexit have progressed on their miserable way that the impressions given of it being the Last Night of the Proms every night of week in the Palace by the Thames. 

Which makes the agreement over powers all the more remarkable. 

And let’s remember this. The Brexit legislation was designed to end any encroachment on the powers of the Imperial Parliament. It was designed to put the “Great” back into Britain. Taking back control. The leader columns of the Daily Express given legal form. Whilst the agreement may involve some limitation on our freedoms to act. And for many of us, this is difficult to swallow. Those limitations are shared limitations. And this is where the minor revolution has taken place.

The agreement places limits upon the ability of the UK Government to govern England. 

Now let that sink in. 

The sovereign Parliament agreeing not to use powers to govern England as a part of an agreement on how we govern the UK.

This is ground-breaking stuff.

Those people who have decided to huff and puff would do well to take a longer view of these matters. The evolution of devolved democracy has been difficult to entrench in a constitution that keeps changing. For people who constantly lecture us on the power and majesty of the Mother of Parliaments, it is telling that that the UK Parliament has failed in over twenty years to deliver a stable form of government for the whole UK with checks and balances and a modern structure of scrutiny and accountability. These are failings of the UK Parliament and not failings of the devolved administrations. UK Ministers still retain far too many residual powers over areas of devolved competence and there remains a seriously deficient settlement for us in Wales and no UK-wide governmental structure that isn’t owned or controlled by the UK Government. So this agreement allows us to begin developing these structures which, after a great deal of unnecessary delay and prevarication, will, I hope, be seen in the future as a fundamental to our constitutional arrangements. It’s how Britain changes.

And I suspect that in private Adam Price recognises this as well. His demand that we take to the trenches to defend the sovereign right of the Welsh Parliament made better theatre than politics or legal common sense. I, and many others on the Labour benches, prefer the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people rather than that of the Crown in Parliament – whether that parliament is by the Thames or the Taff. But we also live in the real world. 

I believe that in time and with goodwill this agreement may well be seen to have set the beginnings of a new course for the UK. A United Kingdom of equal parliaments governing and sharing powers for the good of all the peoples of these islands. A new structure of ministerial councils maintaining the integrity of our shared institutions with shared and joint decisions making the UK a shared space. And the sooner the better.  

Which brings us back to Plaid. Their rage and anger over the agreement with the UK Government on Brexit demonstrates that they do not understand devolution, Wales or the UK. Which is a quite an achievement.

The SNP, with whom I and other Welsh ministers have sat and worked over the last decade or so, have an understanding of the political geography of the UK which is second only to Sinn Fein. And they have accordingly been far more successful than Plaid.

The SNP has clearly taken an informed decision that this agreement – probably for some of the reasons I have already described – is not in their interests. So be it. I make no criticism of the Scottish Government for reaching those conclusions. But their objective of independence and the break-up of the United Kingdom is different to ours. We want to make the UK work. 

The Scottish Labour Party has reached a similar position which, after the horrific consequences of being perceived to support the Conservatives in the independence referendum campaign, should be of little surprise to anyone either.

And this is the point that Plaid simply does not understand. It is entirely possible for Welsh Labour to reach a coherent political position which we believe is in the best interests of Wales and the UK and which is different to the policy positions of Labour elsewhere in these islands. That’s the power of devolution and reflects the political powers we have to take decisions which are different in different parts of the UK. And the crashing irony of Leanne Wood taking time over the summer to write to Jeremy Corbyn asking him to intervene in our affairs to protect Welsh decision-making remains there for everyone to enjoy. 

But that’s all politics. At its heart this is an agreement which may usher in a new way of working for all UK administrations and which entrenches the powers of all our parliaments, establishing a new principle of equality in the governance of the UK. And that means a very different UK to the one we’ve been used to seeing over the last twenty years. It is now our responsibility to describe how we want that new UK to look and the new structures of governance that will give life to this ambition. A fake and sterile argument over powers is a sideshow. The real prize is a fundamental reworking of constitutional theory and practice and the reality of a multinational and shared United Kingdom.

In short it is an agreement which in the future may well be seen as a very British revolution.