Chapter 3

Why isn’t devolution enough, and what difference would independence make?

Since 1999, some powers have been devolved to Wales. The Welsh Government has been given responsibility for some areas of public policy, such as health, education, local government, economic development and the Welsh language. So why do we need independence? Can’t we just work with the system that we’ve got?

While devolution was a huge step forward for Wales, the present system is flawed. The Welsh government gets to make decisions about some things, but the UK government often limits what Wales is able to do. A clear example of this is the new financial settlement that was enacted from April 2019 onwards. Wales has been given the power to vary income taxes, but only with the agreement of the UK government. How much Wales can vary taxes is restricted, and has to be done within a fiscal framework that is agreed between government ministers in Cardiff and our larger “partner” in London.

There is a long list of areas where Wales has no power at all, in Wales! For instance, we can’t legislate on criminal law, and don’t control our courts or our prison and probation services. The Westminster government is proposing to give Greater Manchester power over its police force, but not Wales. At the same time, there is an inherent contradiction in the devolution story in Wales. Despite the dominant narrative being that further devolution is a better option than full independence, when given the option to vote for more powers, many Welsh MPs do not do so. This was the case with the 2016 Wales Bill, where many Welsh MPs abstained in votes that would have devolved policing and other powers to Wales.

Also, decisions about energy generation are made outside Wales, because the UK government doesn’t think that we can be trusted to make these decisions for ourselves. Under the latest devolution settlement, any energy generation development bigger than 350 MW has to be approved by the government in Westminster. In June 2018 the UK Government cancelled a project to construct a world-leading tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay. This is just one example of the way in which Westminster retains power over key areas, denying the Welsh government an opportunity to transform our economy.

Wales is forced into wars, including illegal ones like Iraq, against our will.

When it comes to broadcasting, we rarely see Welsh life on our own TV screens. While in Scotland a new channel for their nation was recently launched, Wales is forced to accept crumbs from Westminster’s table. Who can justify MPs from England deciding on the fate of S4C, or denying us more Welsh programming for BBC Wales?

The current system limits the powers of the Welsh government, and it’s also muddled and confusing. Who is responsible for making decisions, and about what, is unclear even to the experts. For example, in 2012, when the Welsh government decided to create an opt-out system for organ donations, this was challenged by the UK government. They argued that Wales didn’t have the legal powers to pass such a law, and the case was referred to the Supreme Court in London. If the politicians themselves cannot be clear about Wales’ powers, how is the ordinary voter meant to know? The people of Wales should be able to hold politicians accountable for their actions, but unless we know who has responsibility for what, then this becomes impossible. The present system undermines several basic tenets of democracy.

What does devolution mean in practice?

The British system of government is highly centralised, with power ultimately residing with the parliament in Westminster. Under devolution, Westminster delegates powers to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – but it never fully surrenders those powers. The UK parliament retains ultimate authority over the whole of the UK; any powers that it gives to the constituent nations can be taken away on a whim.

Despite the best intentions of the devolution project, the way it has been designed has limited Wales’ ability to run its own affairs. We could work to improve the current system, devolving more powers to Wales, while trying to limit the UK’s ability to veto Welsh initiatives, but is that enough? Independence means a clean slate for Wales. YesCymru believes that the best way forward is in working together to build a democracy that is clear, transparent, and accountable to the people.

 

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