- October 14, 2019
- Posted by: Mick Antoniw AM
- Category: Featured, Latest News
The United Kingdom is facing an unprecedented constitutional crisis on a scale the like of which we have not experienced for several centuries. The very future of the UK is in question. It is not a crisis caused by Brexit, but the experience of the last three years has been a catalyst for a new focus on our constitution and how it works. It has brought the issue into the mainstream. The constitution is no longer an issue consigned to academic debate and for the first time in my political life ordinary people are raising the issue with me in the street. This sea change in public interest has been fuelled in part by high-profile Supreme Court cases and of course, by greater awareness of the potential consequences of the removal of the EU Constitutional umbrella within which we have lived and worked for the past 40 years. The festering fractures inherent in our largely unwritten Constitution have been revealed and, over the course of the next few years , if we do not face up to the need for radical political reform there is a real possibility of the UK breaking up into its constituent parts. A fractious and unplanned gradual disintegration of the UK would have severe economic and social consequences particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable in Wales and across the UK and must be avoided at all costs.
The reunification of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic is now openly discussed as a political possibility. A second referendum on Scottish independence is increasingly likely and should this occur it could leave Wales in precarious, imbalanced and possibly unsustainable relationship with England.
Devolution , two decades ago started the process of the decentralisation of power from Westminster not only to the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments and Northern Ireland but also to the London Assembly and in a rather erratic way through the mayoral system to the larger cities of England .
The UK Government and Westminster Parliament are currently in a state of functional paralysis. Government by Royal Prerogative has become increasingly delusional and out of synch with the rule of law as the recent decisions of the Supreme Court have shown. At intergovernmental level the Joint Ministerial Council , set up to provide a forum for devolved government is widely regarded as “not fit for purpose”.
Calls by Welsh Government for a Constitutional Convention have fallen on deaf ears. We are rapidly approaching a constitutional watershed beyond which the break-up of the UK may become unavoidable. As a responsible Welsh Parliament we must now consider all options and possibilities for the future.
The Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee of the Welsh Assembly has begun an inquiry into the Future of Wales and the UK Constitution. It is an attempt to put structure and substance to the debates around the future of the Union, Independence and Federalism , where Wales fits within this debate and what the challenges, opportunities and threats are that we are likely to face over the coming months and years.
The inquiry will build on the Committee’s 2018 report, UK Governance post-Brexit, which advocated fundamental reform of the Joint Ministerial Committee and the creation of a Speakers’ Conference to facilitate agreement on changes to inter-institutional arrangements in the UK.
The Counsel General Jeremy Miles has already given evidence outlining the experience of Welsh Government in the Brexit discussions and the risks to Welsh devolution. Sir Paul Silk in a recent Western Mail article highlighted the urgency of the need for reform and gave evidence alongside Lord Salisbury on behalf of the Constitutional Reform Group who have tabled in Parliament an embryonic Bill proposing a framework for a new Federal UK Constitution.
This week the Committee will be hosting leading constitutional experts who will participate in a public and recorded roundtable debate on the future of Wales and the UK .
As well as hearing their perspectives, it is an opportunity to test our ideas with them that so that we can produce workable solutions and options for reform.
Constitutional change of this scale will require us to work together and build a consensus that enables a fair and enduring settlement.
The elephant in the room in any discussion must include English devolution and the reform of the Westminster Parliament.
During the Scottish independence debate politicians were unable to satisfactorily explain what the United Kingdom was for, what its purpose was and what the principles were upon which it was based. If there is to be a Union in the future then this question must be answered and Westminster must then set about reforming itself; and this can only be done with the participation and support of all the nations of the UK.
Equality, core taxation and welfare , human rights, redistribution of wealth , Foreign affairs and Defence might be some of the founding principles that could underpin a reformed Parliament with an elected second chamber.
The Joint Ministerial Council could become a Council of Ministers of all the Parliaments of the UK and provide a transitional pathway to federal reform.
How would a sharing of sovereignty be regulated? What would be the disputes resolution mechanism? Would the Supreme Court become the Constitutional Court for a new Union?
Has the Sewel convention whereby the UK Parliament will not normally legislate in devolved areas become obsolete and should it now become a justiciable agreement with a clearly delineated division of responsibilities throughout the UK?
How might the process of a Constitutional Convention be kickstarted in the current political climate.? The Committee has previously called for a Speakers’ Conference, led by the Speakers of the Westminster and devolved governments to look at inter-institutional but it could also serve to begin the debate. There is remarkable unity amongst the Constitutional and legislative Committees across the UK for radical reform. There is significant cross party unity. The idea of a Convention has growing support. The challenge may be to make it happen before it is too late.
The inquiry is a first step to understanding and trying to find answers to some of these questions.
Mick Antoniw is the Labour Assembly Member for Pontypridd and Chair of the Welsh Assembly Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee. This piece appeared in the Western Mail on 14 October 2019.