Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Reserved Powers: Wait and See or Full-Frontal Attack?

I don’t know if Welsh TV and newspaper editors read Pedryn Drycin last week, but press attention on the debate over the Wales Bill, ‘reserved powers’ and the possibility of conflict between Whitehall and Cardiff Bay increased significantly yesterday in anticipation of the Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee’s second evidence-taking session on the question, a session which saw the First Minister and the Presiding Officer questioned by Assembly Members David Melding, Alun Davies, Suzy Davies and Dafydd Elis-Thomas.
The Presiding Officer’s three ‘success criteria’ for the Wales Bill of ‘clarity, practicality and no roll-back’ got some press attention, but it is the session with the First Minister that is of most interest to keen observers of Cardiff Bay/Whitehall manoeuvring. Regarding additional powers for the Assembly, the First Minister said nothing that he has not said already over the last few months. He reiterated that the ‘St. David’s Day Agreement’ was not an agreement at all, and that its modest, lowest-common-denominator, proposals did not represent a “lasting settlement” for Wales. He restated that full implementation of Silk II, along with additional powers that have recently been conceded to Scotland such as Air Passenger Duty, represented the “minimum” that the Wales Bill should be delivering, and that whilst devolution of the Welsh justice system was not necessarily an immediate priority, it was inevitable in the medium term. ‘Steady as she goes’ in that respect really.
What Carwyn Jones did articulate quite explicitly for the first time yesterday was his ‘rejection’ of the specific list of reservations which had been appended to the UK Government’s Command Paper, explaining (as I argued last week) that some of them would render the Assembly less powerful than it had been when it was instituted in 1999. He called it a “wish list” that had probably been put together in a round-robin of Whitehall departments, suggesting (rather generously in my opinion) that the UK Government (and by that I suppose he means David Cameron and senior Cabinet colleagues) did not necessarily agree with their officials. Notwithstanding, proposing to reserve the ‘civil’ and ‘criminal’ law in their entirety to Westminster (which is what the Command Paper does) would be a theoretical, technical and practical absurdity, and the First Minister was rightly dismissive of giving it even passing consideration.
Whilst the First Minister was not as generous as the Presiding Officer in saying that the Command Paper appendix was a “good start”, they both concluded that there was nothing to do but "wait and see" how the Wales Bill is drafted over the summer, and then respond on an inter-governmental basis in the case of the Welsh Government, and in the form of a committee-led report and plenary-backed motion in the case of the Assembly. ‘You show your hand first Mr Crabb’, as it were, ‘and then we’ll show ours’, whilst raising an eyebrow and cocking one’s head to indicate that the Wales Office is probably a long way off the mark at the moment…
But perhaps the most interesting exchange of the session was that of the First Minister with Alun Davies, a Labour member whose personal misfortune at having lost his seat in the Cabinet has, for objective observers, greatly enhanced the quality of debate on the back benches and on Assembly committees. Mr Davies seemed, as he seemed in the previous session, frustrated that ‘we’ (and by ‘we’ I mean that group of cross-party pro-devolution unionists to which Mr Davies belongs) all seem clear on the objective (an enduring system of domestic ‘home rule’ for Wales within some form of UK federation), but cannot simply spell it out, say once and for all what functions, powers and responsibilities should be exclusive to Wales and which should be reserved to the UK.
I can’t be certain, but I suspect that Mr Davies’s frustration is due to the fact that he believes that the intellectual argument for an expansive vision of self-government is very strong and can be won quite easily at the moment, that the UK Government simply needs to be told what the ‘end point’ for unionist Welsh home-rulers is and that they will concede it, given what’s at stake in Scotland and Europe, and how badly they will need allies in the coming years. He gently pressed the First Minister to share that vision with the committee on several occasions. “What are the powers […] that will lead to a lasting settlement?” etc., etc. “Not those on offer” was the First Minister’s reply, as he repeatedly declined to spell out the constitutional specifics of a ‘home-ruled’ Wales.
In fairness to Carwyn Jones, it might just be political hara-kiri to spell out your ultimate objective when you don’t have the power to deliver it (I’m no strategist), and he and his supporters may have already concluded that they are not going to achieve their goal at the first attempt. If ‘full and final’ settlement is at play, and you are not that sure of victory, you don’t attack the enemy with everything that you have got on the first charge.
So it is to be ‘wait and see’ rather than a full frontal attack then, an ambush in the hills rather than a set-piece battle on the plains. All very Welsh of course, but perhaps like Mr Davies, I’d rather hoped we’d moved on from the fear and caution of medieval Wales, that as a modern-day collective we could quietly and calmly agree our objectives, form a powerful coalition of the willing, and go out and achieve victory. Not for the moment it seems.
The full meeting can be viewed here.

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