Wales in the continuing union

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Welsh Secretary, David Jones says current devolution model is right for Wales.

Thank you for my introduction Professor George Boyne.

And my thanks also to Cardiff University’s the Wales Governance Centre – Canolfan Llywodraethiant Cymru Brifysgol Caerdydd – for inviting me here today to talk about Wales in the continuing union.

I am delighted to be here in the Pierhead Building, a building that has long been emblematic of the confidence of Cardiff as a whole, and of the great civic pride evident in this city.

I want today to reflect on the great constitutional issues that are occupying all our minds at the moment, and set out why I, as a passionate Welshman, believe in the Union; why I would not want to see that Union wrenched apart by Scotland’s separation; and why I believe the flexibility of the current model of Welsh devolution means that it is the right one for Wales.

I am happy to take questions at the end.

Future of the union

Constitutionally, 2014 will be the most important year for the United Kingdom in over 300 years. In just fifteen months time, in September 2014, the people of Scotland will be asked to make a historic choice between a continuing union - staying within the UK, or going it alone.

There is a vigorous and vibrant debate going on right now north of the border - and also in London, where I recently attended the launch of the Better Together campaign - about the best future direction for Scotland. And as decisions go, they don’t come much bigger; make no mistake, it is a decision which has important and far reaching implications for all parts of our United Kingdom, including Wales.

It is a decision on whether Scotland should end over 3 centuries of history, shared endeavour and success. Whether Scotland should erect barriers against its most important trading partner. And whether Scotland should turn its back on the shared values and interdependence of the UK’s family of nations.

The UK government is making a strong, positive and, I believe, convincing case to the Scottish people for Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom. Devolution has enabled Scots to take important decisions locally in relation to schools, hospitals, transport and many other issues which affect daily life. In many respects the decisions taken north of the border have differed from those taken in relation to England, and in relation to Wales.

That is,of course, a legitimate consequence of devolution. But devolution has also enabled Scotland, like Wales, to benefit from two legislatures and two governments working in its interests. Devolution has also provided the flexibility to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances in both nations: a flexibility that Scotland would lose with independence. A vote for independence would be a vote for permanent separation. There would be no going back.

I want to see Scotland stay in the Union. I certainly believe that we are better together as one economy with one shared currency. But it’s about more than mere economics. All the nations of the United Kingdom benefit from being part of a larger Union, with strong, shared bonds of culture, values and heritage.

There is nothing contradictory about Scots considering themselves both Scottish and British. Or, for that matter, Welsh people feeling comfortable with the notion that they are Welsh and British, too. Indeed, all Britons should, and most do, feel that they can unselfconsciously assert two nationalities with equal pride.

I am a proud Welshman, but I am also a Unionist, heart, mind, body and soul. I shall be campaigning vigorously in favour of Scotland remaining part of the Union, and I hope that as many others as possible in Wales’s political and civic life – from the First Minister down – will do the same.

Wales within the union

In fifteen months time, I hope and expect Scotland to vote for a strong and continuing Union. But what sort of United Kingdom should there be in future, and what should be Wales’s role within it?

No Welsh independence

Let me begin by asserting that there is no significant call in Wales for separation from the rest of the UK; even leading members of Plaid Cymru have rowed back from that aim. Support for independence has historically always been low – at less than 10% - and remains so. As with Scotland, the bonds are strong between the Welsh people and the rest of the United Kingdom. The people of Wales overwhelmingly support the United Kingdom, with devolved governance for Wales, and recognise that any case for an independent Wales, as for an independent Scotland, simply does not stand up to serious scrutiny.

The flexibility of devolution in the UK

Devolution in the United Kingdom is asymmetrical. Each of the devolved settlements – for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – is different: the powers conferred on each of the devolved institutions in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast are not the same. Moreover, the settlement models themselves differ, with:

  • Wales having a conferred powers model, with the legislative competence of the National Assembly for Wales being defined in the Government of Wales Act 2006
  • Scotland having a reserved powers model, where the legislative competence of Parliament in relation to Scotland is defined in the Scotland Acts
  • Northern Ireland having its own form of the reserved powers model, where the legislative competence of the UK Parliament is divided between “reserved matters”, which may be transferred to Northern Ireland at a future date, and “excepted matters”, which are powers retained indefinitely by the UK Parliament

It will come as no surprise to many of you when I say that I am not a federalist. Unlike the former Presiding Officer, Dafydd Elis Thomas (for whom I have great personal respect), I do not see a federalised UK as somehow a panacea for resolving questions about the governance of England, or for addressing what some regard as the problem of the current asymmetry in the UK’s devolution arrangements.

Indeed, I will go further. I support the current arrangements for devolution in the UK as providing the constitutional flexibility with which the peoples of all the British nations are comfortable, rather than a one size fits all approach which I believe would satisfy few.

I believe that to federalise Britain would be to create a constitutional straitjacket that would stifle the flexibility which the current arrangements provide, and which are most suitable, especially, in the context of England and Wales.

There are some here in Wales who see the process of devolution in Wales as an inexorable journey towards the Scottish model and in so doing, by implication, seem to favour symmetry between the devolution settlements – whether within a federal structure or not. In certain respects it may make sense for Wales to have similar powers to those north of the border – the Silk Commission’s recommendations for fiscal devolution, which we are still positively considering, are certainly similar to the arrangements for Scotland.

But in general terms I do not believe that Wales needs to accrue identical powers to those that Scotland has or that it is desirable for it to do so. The differences between the history, geography, institutions and culture of Wales and Scotland mean that different arrangements for devolution in the British nations make sense.

A distinct Welsh identity

Of course, each nation of the UK has its own distinct history. What marks Wales out is its long and close (if sometimes difficult) relationship with England, from Edward the First’s conquest in the 13th century, through the years of rebellion culminating in Owain Glyndŵr’s short-lived Welsh Parliament at Machynlleth in the early 15th century, to the Laws in Wales Acts of 1535 to 1542, which effectively integrated Wales with England, creating a single state and legal jurisdiction. Those Acts also, for the first time, defined the border between England and Wales, and allowed Members representing Welsh constituencies to be elected to the then English Parliament.

But the history of Wales’s relationship with its larger neighbour is never easy to characterise. Henry Tudor’s victory at the Battle of Bosworth could be claimed (as indeed I once did claim on the floor of the House of Commons) as a Welsh annexation of England, or at least of the English throne!

Welsh language

Despite 800 years of close connection, Wales retains its distinct identity and unique culture. The Welsh language has played an important part in this. Rydw i’n gefnogwr brwd o’r iaith Gymraeg. I am a staunch supporter of the Welsh language, and I hope that in future the language can develop as an important and positive part of a successful Wales, and not become a source of division within Wales.

So yes, Wales’s relationship with England has been long, entwined and complex. In many ways it is subtler than Scotland’s relationship with its southern neighbour, with a union founded on conquest rather than negotiated agreement - many of Wales’s most famous ancient monuments stand testament to that fact.

Furthermore, Wales, unlike Scotland, has a densely populated border country, parts of which are among Wales’s most economically successful areas. In many respects, the border is invisible, with English and Welsh residents passing across it in both directions every day. The principal transport routes run east to west (in other words, to and from England), with north-south routes fewer and more difficult.

The historically intertwined nature of Wales’s relationship with England shows itself in 3 key ways.

Firstly, there is a single, unified legal jurisdiction between the 2 countries. A jurisdiction that has evolved for over some five hundred years to meet the changing circumstances of society in England and Wales.

Let me say directly that I believe the unified jurisdiction is hugely beneficial to Wales.

Unlike some in Wales, I do not believe that the Assembly’s recently-acquired powers to create primary legislation warrant the establishment of a separate Welsh jurisdiction.

Indeed, as a lawyer, albeit one who no longer practises, I consider that there would be significant practical disadvantages to a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction.

There are, for example, issues of scale. In terms of the judiciary, the limited number of serious and complex cases, which currently are usually dealt with by the High Court or Court of Appeal in Wales, would mean only a handful of judges hearing these types of cases, with an obvious impact on the range of experience available for exclusively Welsh judges.

The benefits of interaction and insight gained by judges working across circuit boundaries, or through participation in common training, would be diminished, and the relative lack of opportunities to gain experience and develop careers would risk Wales losing judiciary of higher calibre to England.

Similarly, Welsh litigants at present have access to a large, strong and diverse England and Wales Bar, with a wide range of specialisms. Splitting the jurisdiction would significantly diminish that access.

The argument has been put forward, by some in the Welsh government and others, that a growing statute book of Welsh laws makes it inevitable a separate Welsh jurisdiction will need to be established at some point in the near future. But the current and foreseeable Welsh statute book is miniscule compared to the centuries of legislation that applies to Wales, both statute and judge-made. And it is likely to remain relatively small long into the future, no matter what the pace of law-making in Cardiff Bay.

In any case, lawyers practising in England and Wales are perfectly used to interpreting laws founded on common approaches to statutory constructs and judicial precedents and the time when the volume of Welsh laws poses a problem in terms of their ability to do so effectively is, I would argue, well in the distant future.

There are also issues of cost. Upwards of £105 million per annum to replicate many of the cross-border justice structures that already exist, including over £80 million to build and run the additional prisons that would be required.

So, I conclude that there are much better arguments against a single Welsh legal jurisdiction than there are in favour, and l see little prospect of that changing, even over the medium to long term.

Importance of England to the Welsh economy and vice versa

The second way in which Wales is closely linked with England is economic. England is Wales’s biggest trading partner, and strong trading links across the border are central to the Welsh economy. As I mentioned earlier, most of the principal routes run east to west.

Wales benefits hugely from its proximity to England, and to its large urban centres in cities such as Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Every day, thousands of Welsh and English workers cross the border to their places of work. In areas such as the Mersey-Dee subregion, large employers on both sides of the border attract many employees from the other side. Over 80,000 Welsh residents work outside Wales and over 50,000 people who live outside Wales come here to work.

More widely, Wales, like Scotland, benefits from being part of an internal UK market of over 60 million people and from the trade and investment opportunities delivered through the strong UK-brand.

Cross-border issues

The third way in which Wales is entwined with England is in terms of personal and institutional interactions across the border. There are many cross-border institutions; some represent Wales and England as a whole, including professional bodies such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, and others represent more closely defined cross-border areas, such as the West Cheshire and North Wales Chamber of Commerce or the Shropshire and Mid-Wales Insurance Institute.

48% of people in Wales live within 25 miles of the English border and 90 percent live within 50 miles. People move across that border on a daily basis for work, hospital treatment, education and leisure: For them, the border is no more than a line on a map; it has no relevance to their daily lives.

So the relationship between Wales and England is deeply intertwined. The devolution settlement for Wales reflects this unique relationship, and it is right that it does so.

It is for the good of Wales, the good of England and the good of the United Kingdom as a whole.

Welsh devolution: Does it work?

Wales’s complex interactions with England are reflected in our devolution settlement. As I explained earlier, Wales’s settlement defines devolution by conferring powers on the Assembly and the Welsh Government rather than defining the powers reserved to Parliament and the UK government.

The key questions are how well does this model work, and is it the best model for the specific circumstances of Wales?

These questions provoke a wide range of opinions. Some say the model is too complex; that determining what is devolved and non-devolved is too convoluted to understand easily; the boundary too unclear; and in consequence, a contentious and adversarial relationship between the Cardiff and London is in-built to Welsh devolution.

I, for my part, disagree. I believe this is the right model of devolution for Wales. Wales, like Scotland, benefits from having two governments and two legislatures, but the relationship between the devolved institutions in each country and the UK government is rightly quite different. In Wales’s case, it is right that our model for devolution confers specific powers on the devolved institutions in Cardiff given the close-knit nature of the relationship, and the extent of the interdependence between Wales and England.

Given that relationship, a devolved settlement for Wales would always need to be more subtle, more finely tuned and, yes, more complicated, than its Scottish equivalent. We will always need to provide for flexibility as the relationship between Cardiff and London matures.

Rejecting a reserved model of devolution for Wales

We can, and should, always look to make modifications to the settlement, to fine-tune out any unnecessary complication. And that is exactly what the Silk Commission is currently looking at. But the argument that changing the Welsh settlement to a “reserved” model, along Scottish lines, would somehow instantly provide fresh clarity is, frankly, a naïve one.

It would be just as necessary under a reserved model to reflect Wales’s complex relationship with England and the rest of the UK as it is under the current ‘conferred powers’ model. The need, for example, to reflect in either model the unified criminal justice system between England and Wales, those aspects of transport and energy infrastructure which are of national importance, and other such matters.

Some would contend that changing to a reserved model for Wales would allow the Assembly and Welsh government to exercise their powers in a more unfettered way. They could exercise their powers in any area, unless that area is specifically reserved to the UK-level, rather than in the twenty subject areas currently devolved to Wales. In so doing, the argument goes, the “onus of proof” in identifying any overstep in the exercise of powers would be placed more on London, rather than on Cardiff.

But such an argument ignores the specific circumstances of Wales. A reserved powers model would still need to reflect the subtlety and detail inherent in the current Welsh settlement. It could not be simply a restatement of the Scottish model: we can’t rewrite 800 years of Welsh history and almost 500 years of union.

So I believe the current model, continuously reviewed, modified and improved whenever necessary, is the right one for Welsh devolution. And I look forward to reading the Silk Commission’s recommendations on how that model can be made better.

My vision for Wales

I am ambitious for Wales. I want it to be prosperous, vibrant and self-confident, celebrating its heritage, culture and distinctiveness while benefitting from playing its full part in a dynamic, enterprising, compassionate and strong United Kingdom.

But even the most impartial observer could not now describe Wales as prosperous. On many indicators it is one of the poorest parts of the UK: something none of us want to see, and all of us need to work together to rectify.

Welsh government: The effective use of powers

Getting the governance of Wales right, having the right powers in the right place, is crucial in securing a more prosperous Wales. And I believe it would also produce wider benefits: with prosperity comes confidence, self-assurance, a Wales standing taller as a pro-active, positive partner within the union.

So, is the governance of Wales right at the moment? Let me preface my answer by making perfectly clear that I believe in devolution: devolution at every level, down to the right level.

I recall that during the 2011 Assembly referendum campaign, the First Minister urged the people of Wales to vote “yes” so that the Welsh government “had the tools it needed to do the job”. The people of Wales did just that, allowing the Assembly to legislate in all twenty areas devolved to Wales. But my concern is that, to date, devolution of power has not delivered a more prosperous Wales.

Quite the reverse, in fact. Since devolution, the prosperity gap between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom has widened. In 1999, Wales’s economic output per head of population was 76.9 per cent of the UK average. Fourteen years later, it is 75.2 per cent.

I believe that the devolved institutions in Wales, the Assembly and the Welsh government, can do much more to support growth and investment; to give Wales a competitive edge in the global race; and to deliver the right incentives to get entrepreneurs and companies to come and invest here. In short, the devolved institutions can do more to facilitate our nation’s prosperity.

A consequence of the Welsh government’s policies is that sometimes it can give the impression of being unfriendly to economic development: the regulatory burdens placed on the construction industry, for example, testify to that.

People, particularly businesspeople, often wonder why the Welsh government can’t do more to give Wales a competitive edge with the powers it and the Assembly have already, rather than simply seeking more. Why the regulatory burden on business in Wales is increasing, rather than being trimmed. Is that really what devolution is for?

My challenge to Cardiff Bay, or perhaps more accurately to Cathays Park, is to use devolved powers more effectively to break down the barriers to new business and growth; revive the Welsh economy and deliver Welsh prosperity. And possibly spend a little less time agonising over more powers.

I am absolutely clear that I’m not opposed to further devolution to Wales. But any powers devolved must be appropriate for the task in hand; and that task needs to be carefully defined.

I know everyone is eagerly awaiting the government’s response to the Silk Commission’s recommendations on fiscal devolution. I said last week that we have made good, positive progress, and we expect to make an announcement in the very near future.

Last October, the UK government announced our agreement in principle to borrowing powers for Welsh Ministers to help fund the infrastructure investment that Wales so urgently needs. I hope that our response to Silk will flesh out that agreement and give the Welsh Government a real incentive to boost the Welsh economy.

The Assembly: Listening, challenging and engaged

Wales has had devolved governance for fourteen years. In that time, we have seen devolved government take root and develop, and become an important part of Welsh life. It is still evolving, and, I believe, now has the opportunity to move towards a mature democracy.

The Assembly has a crucial job to do in legislating in devolved areas, holding the Welsh Government to account and being the forum where issues that really matter to people in Wales are raised and debated. It is a very important institution.

However, when I visit the Senedd, I am often struck by how quiet it is, how few people there are in and around the building. And, frankly, how tame its debates are. It is almost serene, disengaged from the hurly burly of real life, something reflected upon by national newspaper editors at the recent conference held by the Assembly.

BBC Parliament Controller, Peter Knowles, said that some debates can be “grim to watch”, with AMs “typing and fiddling with their computers”. Following the conference, Kevin Maguire, associate editor of that well-known Conservative mouthpiece, the Daily Mirror, said of the Assembly: “Debates aren’t that exciting. Most Welsh Assembly Members don’t look that excited about them, so why do they think the voters would be interested?”

Compare that with Parliament, which is always full of people, bustling about, seeking out and sometimes haranguing their elected representatives, accessing and engaging in modern democracy and observing vibrant, but often rough and tumble, debate.

My challenge to the Assembly - and remember that I speak as a friend and former Assembly Member - is to grow as a democratic institution, find a way of engaging more purposefully with the people Wales who elect it, and connect more directly in the debating chamber with the devolved issues that really matter to their electors. What we need is not a Cardiff Bay bubble, but a legislature that is truly representative of the people of Wales and which robustly reflects their sometimes widely divergent views.

I believe that this is an aspiration shared by many in Wales, including many members of the Assembly.

Devolution within Wales

I would also like to see more real devolution within Wales. As a Conservative, I believe in devolution of power to the most appropriate level. The UK government took the right step in this regard by establishing directly elected police and crime commissioners. I believe in the free flow of democracy, and do not want to see that flow being dammed in the Assembly and the Welsh government. I would like to see more powers flowing down to the local level in Wales, to the county, borough and community councils that are the building blocks of our democracy.

I know that it’s said by some that the 22 councils in Wales are too many, that Welsh local government is consequently too small for meaningful devolution to take place. Local government is one of the twenty devolved subjects, and the structure of local government in Wales is for the Welsh government and the Assembly to decide. All I will say is that I feel very strongly that local communities in Wales should be empowered to take as many decisions as possible locally.

Relations between Cardiff and London

Finally, I would like to turn to the relationship between Cardiff and London, and in particular between the Welsh and United Kingdom governments. Any relationship between national and sub-national government will inevitably have its ups and downs, its periods of getting along and its times of disagreement.

Personally, I have a very good relationship with the First Minister, despite our obvious political differences. We meet regularly and discuss a wide range of issues that matter to Wales, and are often able to tackle emerging problems before they grow into bigger ones. Similarly, Wales Office Ministers meet Welsh Ministers regularly.

Communication, and often the quality of personal relationships, really are the key to making devolution work well - it is crucial that the two governments talk regularly to understand the other’s point of view and pre-empt problems before they occur. And, where necessary, to be prepared to make concessions. It is, after all, in the best interests of Wales that we work hard and work together, and work hard at working together. The people of Wales expect and deserve nothing less.

Many of you here today will, I am sure, be aware of occasions when this has not happened, and Ministers in both London and Cardiff should be aware of the impression that gives; not only to the people of Wales, but also to potential external investors, who want to see our two governments working together coherently for the good of Wales.

I want the UK government to be able to learn from what’s going on in Wales. Yes, we’ve not always been good at that, but there have been instances where Wales has led the way for the rest of the UK – the Children’s Commissioner, and concessionary travel for older and disabled people, are two notable examples. Whitehall needs to focus more on what’s going on in Wales – and indeed in the other devolved administrations.

Devolution provides an opportunity for different, sometimes competing policies to come forward and be “tested” - for want of a better word – in one or more parts of the UK. Those that are successful could then be applied elsewhere.

But for that approach to work in Wales there needs sometimes to be a change in thinking. For Wales to consider adopting policies implemented successfully in another part of the UK, not necessarily only those “made in Wales”.

Overall, we have seen Wales grow over the last half century into a more self-confident nation, and it is important that the governance of Wales keeps pace with the way people in Wales live their lives. Welsh people are, by and large, comfortable with themselves, with their English neighbours and with the notion of being both Welsh and British. They don’t have barriers, and don’t want to see barriers set up between those who govern them.

I believe that the governance of Wales demands, first, a pragmatic, flexible and dynamic approach to devolution. British people are by nature pragmatic; they have a highly developed understanding of the rule of law, without ever having felt the need for a written constitution. That pragmatism should apply to the special circumstances of Wales’s relationship with the rest of the UK.

Second, we need a Welsh government which is prepared to learn from all the other governments and legislatures in the UK, and beyond, and not wedded to so called made in Wales solutions to Welsh problems which have already been resolved effectively elsewhere. Many of Wales’s problems are, after all, indistinguishable from those elsewhere in the UK.

The approach I am advocating would show that devolution in Wales had come of age, and had developed a stable, mature relationship between the Welsh government and Assembly and the UK government and Parliament, based on mutual respect and focused on the wellbeing of Wales and growing the Welsh economy.

This new way of working - this healthy exchange - could happen now; it should happen now. It is simply a question of attitude.

We must await the Silk Commission’s Part II report next year before considering the possible devolution of further powers to the Assembly. But there are some anomalies to address. A particular example is roads, where there are some very big infrastructure projects that we need to get off the ground.

Discussions are continuing between the UK government and the Welsh government on upgrading the M4 around Newport. I’m sure we’re all hopeful of a positive announcement by the Chancellor when he publishes the outcome of the 2015-16 Spending Review on Wednesday.

But we also have other key trans-European routes - like the A55 in North Wales – where improvements are essential to help boost economic growth - and roads like the A483, which dip in and out across the border, and where no-one is in overall charge of improvements.

I’m not pre-empting the Silk Commission’s findings here – it is independent of government and will come to its own conclusions – but I would like it to be looking at how powers should be aligned and improved in terms of major transport infrastructure in Wales, and the need to upgrade it, so that we can deliver the projects that are needed.

Conclusion: My vision for Wales

So, in conclusion, what is the Wales that I would like to see?

I would like more recognition of the way Wales really is, of the way its people live their lives, and devolution arrangements that reflect a Wales that is confident, unselfconscious and relaxed in reaching out beyond its administrative borders.

The Wales we see today is already a long way down that road - a quite different country from the one I, and many of you, grew up in.

I want the devolution settlement to keep pace, and reflect the confidence that now shines through in Wales.

  • an Assembly and Welsh government which are outward looking institutions, comfortable and relaxed with the flexibility of the Welsh devolution settlement, and able to learn and change to meet the needs of Wales

  • a Welsh government with the confidence to do its best for Wales by using the powers it has, rather than seeking to accrue more for no apparent reason, like trophies to be displayed in a cabinet

  • devolved arrangements that empower local communities and local people in Wales by divesting powers and devolving down to serve all of Wales. Not hoarding them in Cardiff

  • an agile, can-do attitude to policy making in Cardiff, stripping away the burdens on Welsh business that put us at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the United Kingdom

Our United Kingdom is a family of nations, each with distinct histories, but with shared values and culture and a strong sense of interdependence.

I believe that the our current, approach to the devolution settlements, avoiding one size fits all, is right, and should continue. It provides flexibility, and can constantly adapt to changing circumstances. I believe that is what people in Wales want. I reject the proposition that Wales should have whatever Scotland’s got. It’s far too simplistic and is not right for Wales. As I’ve set out the two nations have different histories, different institutions and a different relationship with England.

That’s not to say the devolution settlement can’t be improved. That’s why I’ve got the Silk Commission looking at how to improve it. Yes, there may well be further devolution and, yes, I am open minded on how we will take things forward in light of the Silk II report next year.

But powers should move between London and Cardiff, Cardiff and London, only when appropriate. And we should always consider where powers should best reside to get things done for the good of Wales, as part of a strong and continuing Union.

Wales’s biggest advantage by far on the world stage is that it is a constituent part of the United Kingdom. It is not only Scotland which is “better together”.

Wales is, too.