Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Devolution and all that

It's a pity that Sharp End was shunted from its Thursday evening slot. It was my regular escape from the Question Time bear-garden. Last night, Adrian Masters showed what he could do with double his usual paltry allocation of time in a celebration of fifteen years of Welsh devolution. He and the four current party leaders provided the right mix of consensus and political argument which by common consent has marked the Assembly's own discussions (First Minister's Questions excepted, and if you haven't seen the programme, it's worth catching for the interchange on this subject between Carwyn Jones and Kirsty Williams alone).

I was glad to see that the debate avoided altogether the relationship between constituency and list members, which Labour in Westminster is making so much of during the progress of the Wales Bill, though by so doing the leaders missed a nuance. The "top-up" provided by the Welsh regional lists is not quite enough to give true proportionality, so that there is always a bias (known technically as overhang) towards the party which wins most constituency places - currently Labour. The Welsh system was copied from that devised as a result of the Scottish devolution settlement. This is truly proportional, but the arithmetic was eased by the larger number of Scottish constituencies.

As I understand it, the Scottish system was a compromise between Scottish Labour who would have preferred first-the-post for all Scottish Parliament seats and Scottish Liberal Democrats who proposed (naturally) STV in multi-member constituencies. It was Andy Myles of the LibDems who did the calculations to ensure that the Scottish AMS was as fair as any list-based system can be.

I see that Andy Myles has joined his friend Craig Murray in arguing for full Scottish independence. The fact that two men with clear Liberal credentials support a complete breakaway from the UK shows that the issue is not as clear-cut as the Westminster party leaders make out. It is something which is best left to the Scots, I suggest. The rather heavy-handed "No" campaign has been counter-productive if the reports in the Scottish media are to be believed. (Perhaps this is David Cameron's secret aim. He may look forward to the Labour contingent to Westminster from north of the border being eliminated, not to mention the social security bill.) By all means provide the data to the Scottish electorate, but let the figures speak for themselves.

Of course, a "Yes" vote would not be the end of the story. There would follow months of hard negotiations with both the UK government and the EU over finance, including the currency to be adopted by Scotland. There is resistance by other member states of the EU to accept an application from what they see as a breakaway state, setting a precedent for their own dissatisfied regions. There may or may not be a rosy long-term future for Scotland, but there will certainly be an initial period of uncertainty to live through. This would surely effectively freeze major investment in Scotland for a period of years.

The coalition (no doubt so advised by the civil service, who like to put off decisions) seems to be waiting on the Scottish vote before looking at further powers for Wales after passage of the Bill currently going through Parliament. The party leaders in Cardiff Bay were unanimous last night in their view that discussions on Silk and other recommendations for further devolution should proceed without regard to which way the Scots vote.

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