For England, see Wales. Three reasons why Welsh devolution is important for England

Posted on March 23, 2016 by Diana Stirbu. Tags: ,

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Diana Stirbu

It used to be that one referred to the infamous Encyclopedia Britannica entry For Wales, see England, to highlight the degree of English hegemony within Britain. Yet, the degree of self-determination within Britain’s Celtic periphery post devolution is challenging that view.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland devolution has been highly political and constitutional, was popularly endorsed -with various degrees of enthusiasm-, and continues to be extremely dynamic. English devolution is a different beast, disguised in a form of coordinated localism and decentralisation, driven at best by economic growth aspirations and, at worst, by survival instincts in the face of austerity. 

For this English devolution, I dare say, see Wales. There are many reasons why English cities and counties, alongside with policy makers and scrutinisers should look at Wales, and draw on the lessons it has to offer. I argue that Wales has an important cautionary story to tell, of relevance to English devolution.

First, let us consider the asymmetry and informal arrangements underpinning the process. Asymmetry may have been predicated as fit for purpose by the devolution designers in 1997, but on the constitutional front it led to untidiness, incoherence and unfairness. Nowhere could this find more resonance than in Wales, whose initial settlement was a masterpiece of unintelligibility and constitutional abnormality. A decade and a half later, three Acts of Parliament (soon to be four) since 1997, and a Referendum, the Welsh settlement is hardly settled. Whilst moving forward on its constitutional journey, Wales has had to continuously repair old cracks, and still remains heavily restricted by the early choices of its devolution designers. Whilst, informal  and bi-lateral arrangements were enough to sustain an untidy and uneven devolution scheme during the honey moon of political congruence (Labour governments in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh), that changed into a marriage of (in)convenience and a difficult co-habitation within the perfectly political incongruent space and as devolution entered the fiscal and financial territory.

The Celtic periphery, although ideologically united by an anti-austerity hard line, does not necessarily speak in the same voice when it comes to reforming the funding system for devolution. And Wales, in that respect, has pretty much been a very junior partner. English devolution follows a similar, if not more dangerous, path of asymmetry. The PSA Research Commission  warns about the role of ‘informal’ governance on devolution to England’s cities. English combined authorities and city regions should at least contemplate the idea of a common governance framework, with clear guidelines around scrutiny and accountability arrangements, with mechanisms for civic participation, and coherent policy goals. 

Secondly, the devolution dividend can be somehow elusive, especially if the democratic element is disregarded. Unlike Scotland, devolution in Wales, was endorsed only by the finest of margins in 1997. Yet it is perhaps on this front that the Assembly has made the greatest strides, with only 16% of Welsh people now supporting any kind of reversing of devolution in Wales, as the March 2016 BBC/ICM St David’s Day Polls shows. However, other dividends (on education, health and economy) are harder to come by in Wales as Adam Price argues. English devolution, driven mostly by economic growth aspirations, has so far lacked both holistic approach to and citizen engagement in the process – a potential hindrance to the coherence and legitimacy of devolution agreements. If the economic dividend is predicated as the sole aspiration of English devolution, then serious questions should be asked with regards to the possible effects of the local government finance reform, the dangers of removing the redistributive element in the system, and the exacerbation of competition between localities.

Finally, Wales’s biggest devolution hurdles were: first, addressing the legitimacy deficit left by the narrow margin of popular endorsement in 1997 and the limited citizen engagement in the devolution debate; and, second, tackling the institutional and constitutional deficits resulting from the limited form of devolution adopted. England’s devolution too needs to tackle various deficits: political, constitutional, financial and strategic, as Bob Hudson argues here, but also institutional and legitimacy deficits I would add. Devolution has created new spaces for change, deliberation, learning and innovation. Yet, in the absence of political prowess, constitutional clarity and strong institutional and civic engagement capacity, these spaces can easily become places of self-congratulatory mediocrity, institutional deafness and duplication of roles.

Wales’ devolution journey tells a cautionary tale – that constitutional design matters for devolution to deliver best outcomes; asymmetry is a short-term solution and parochialism is counter-productive; that devolution is indeed a process, likely to evolve; and that its potential dividends go beyond the prospects of economic growth. Devolution presents a unique window of opportunity to re-invigorate local and regional democracy. Yet, this is the very narrative that is downplayed by English devolution so far. In the absence of popular endorsement and constitutional protection, English devolution is much more susceptible to reversibility than its Celtic counterparts.

 

About the Author: Diana Stirbu

Dr. Diana Stirbu is Senior Lecturer in Public Administration at London Metropolitan University and has written extensively about UK devolution. Twitter: @Diana_Stirbu E-mail: d.stirbu@londonmet.ac.uk