Where next for Welsh law making?

When asked to speak on the topic of “Where next for Welsh law making?” last weekend, my initial reaction was simple: get on with it.

My gut instinct since the last referendum in 2011 is that Wales has basically got the “tools for the job” which Carwyn Jones asked for in that referendum, and the onus is now on the Government and other parties to produce a legislative programme that is radical, comprehensive and utilises the powers granted by the people of Wales.

To quote Rhodri Morgan when challenged about the boundaries of devolution a decade ago, it is time to stop marking out the pitch and start playing the game. Or to give it a saucier spin, it was time for the foreplay to finish and the… Well, you get my point.

Thus I raised a well groomed eyebrow when, within six months of the last Assembly election, the Silk Commission was founded. It came so soon after the referendum of 2011 that it struck me as premature and unnecessary, and a partial admittance of something I did not want to admit - True Wales had a valid point about the endless constitutional shifting between Wales and Westminster. It seemed to play entirely to the court of Pontcanna, a place we are usually more than happy to sip a mocha but, on this occasion, it did not seem timely or right.

I was also concerned about the extent to which the Silk Commission would actually achieve anything. But, on consideration, I knew that my good friend Nick Bourne would not have signed up to a fruitless, draining and pointless endeavour even though he had served as leader of the Welsh Conservative group in the Assembly for over a decade. So I gave Silk the benefit of the doubt.

Having seen the Commission performance, I believe I was right to do so. Having been at the forefront on two Yes Campaigns that have cost me sleep, hair and patience, I have no appetite for a third, even though the argument around holding one for income tax does seem very compelling. As Silk has progressed, my interest has instead focused on the second part of its work around the functional end of devolution, and the Commission is examining the powers of the National Assembly.

Like a Conservative, I do not favour change for change’s sake but from an examination of the evidence to Silk Part Two there is an overwhelming case being made for a reserved powers of governance. Quite simply, this would be a switch from the current system where policy areas are devolved to the Assembly to one which mirrors the situation in Scotland and Northern Ireland where powers are instead clearly reserved to Westminster, with the rest devolved. As the influential UK Changing Union Partnership argued in its well constructed submission to Silk, appropriately named “A Stable, Sustainable Devolution Settlement for Wales,” the case for a reserved powers model would allow consistency across the UK to ensure that the same constitutional principles are adopted across the UK, even where specific powers may differ. It would also, the argue compellingly, encouraging consistent behaviours between UK and devolved institutions.

The chance to develop a reserved model of powers for Wales would require new legislation but would not need a new referendum, so in practical terms it is also appealing. But the biggest appeal would be to provide a framework of constitutional stability for Wales and the UK as a whole because it is clear to see that the current constitutional settlement, which is Labour’s legacy, is not stable.

This is also the conclusion of the UK Changing Union project:

“We believe, on the evidence that we have assembled, that the future of the Welsh devolution dispensation needs to be addressed holistically rather than on a piecemeal basis. Indeed, our experience in exploring the issues raised by the Commission’s remit reinforces our view that to adopt a piecemeal fashion is to risk replicating the very incoherence and short-termism that has been such a strongly negative feature of the Welsh constitution-making process so far. What is required is a fundamental, principle-based rethinking of the constitutional underpinnings of devolved government aimed squarely at providing the people of Wales with a stable and sustainable system of devolved government within the United Kingdom.”

Conservative constitutional pragmatism is written into the DNA of Conservative Party. From Disraeli and the Reforms Act of 1867 onward this approach has been at the core of your appreciation and support for reasoned constitutional change. This was reinforced at last week’s conference when Andrew RT Davies made clear that the Welsh Conservatives had to leave behind the battles of 1997 and make sure devolution now worked more effectively. Looking to a reserved powers model would meet that aspiration and define in it in practice.

More particularly, introducing a reserved powers model as a consequence of the Silk Commission it established would allow the Conservatives to bring stability to the politics in Wales. The challenge for the Conservatives is to be the party in Wales that takes seriously the overwhelming evidence introduced to Silk and do just that.

The original source of this article was presented by Daran Hill in a Tory Reform Group fringe at the Welsh Conservative Conference in Swansea last weekend. Daran is the Managing Director of Positif, and served as the Campaign Director of Yes for Wales in 2011 and the National Organiser in 1997.