19 Sep 2014

After Scotland’s referendum, what now for Wales?

Home Affairs Correspondent

Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones accuses David Cameron of almost “sleepwalking to disaster” in his call for “a new union”.

Wales should be “at the heart” of the devolution debate, said the prime minister today in his Downing Street address. Perhaps it should be. The question is: will it? Because in Cardiff today the Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones, for one, certainly didn’t sound convinced, writes Andy Davies.

Scotland has been in a different league when it comes to setting the political agenda, and Wales too often has lagged behind – “kilt-streaming”, as one commentator put it.

And the insecurity shows. “Wales cannot and will not play second fiddle,” said an emboldened first minister today, as he derided the coalition government‘s previous approach to devolution and then demanded: “Wales’s under-funding must be addressed.”

‘Sticking plaster’ remedy

The criticisms of the prime minister appeared carefully scripted. Carwyn Jones accused David Cameron of “almost sleepwalking to disaster” over the Scottish referendum. The notion of `English votes for English laws’ was but a “a sticking plaster” remedy. It was a strong speech. It will get noticed.

But the danger for Carwyn Jones and his colleagues is that an agenda once dominated by Scottish affairs will now move seamlessly into the question of English devolution, with Wales struggling again, politically, to get noticed.

He made much today of the fact that his repeated calls in the past for a “constitutional convention” – to thrash out a way forward on devolution across the UK – had been ignored. “It’s all the rage now,” he said afterwards in a TV interview.

Weak hand to play

But is it really? He can blame “the establishment” for “almost losing the union” and make a powerful appeal that “the people must now rebuild it”. And yet the early indications for such a people’s convention, according to Lee Waters, director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs (see video above), are not favourable:

“Carwyn Jones’ prescient calls for a UK-wide constitutional convention do not feature in David Cameron’s thinking… a cabinet committee will draw up plans to address the question of ‘English votes for English laws’. The early signs are not encouraging.”

The reality is that Wales has had a weak hand to play in the corridors of Whitehall for a long time, viewed as serial public funding complainants, lacking a clear vision for the constitutional endgame of the country.

If it really is to be at the heart of the debate over devolution, Wales – building on the work of the Silk Commission on devolution – needs to make its case clearly and powerfully. There will be plenty of voices across the regions of England preparing to do precisely the same.