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The Welsh dimension: how the devolved nations found a role within our unwritten constitution

Wales has had a unique road in its devolution history, says Craig Williams.

3 min read

To many, even in the political sphere, the word devolution often sparks a great deal of misunderstanding.

Colleagues who have a devolved government have a distinctly different set of roles and responsibilities than those who do not. This was clearly seen during the pandemic, where powers were exercised differently across the four nations. While the success of those differentiations I shall leave to debate, in the various chambers across the nation, it is undeniable that the divergence in regulations has a real impact on constituents.

Wales has had a unique road in its devolution history, with its powers model being starkly different to those of Scotland and Northern Ireland. It has seen a gradual change in responsibilities and powers conferred upon it, moving from an executive model from its inception to a reserved powers model today. What this means in practice is that the Welsh Government, and the Senedd, went from a system whereby it was told what powers it could exercise, to being told what powers it could not.

The constitution has always been seen through the prism of Scotland. This is because it has far less interaction with its neighbour and its services are not as intertwined as they are between England and Wales. Considering areas along the border, it is clear how the constitutional settlement needs to be variable, with many crossing the border to access health, education, work and so much more. It is only logical that both Wales and England have a governmental structure that tries to complement this reality.

Our uncodified constitution is remarkably very useful in the story of devolution. While many would consider this to be a disadvantage, it allows a huge deal of flexibility for the governments of the United Kingdom to react and adapt to changing constitutional realities. This has allowed the Welsh government to gradually receive more powers with subsequent Wales Acts. Indeed, Wales’ parliamentary history is one of gradual growth, maturity and change, which has shown to pay dividends. As they get to grips with more powers over a period of time, it allows an institutional memory to be developed whereby the electorate and civil servants get to grips with the constitutional makeup.

The biggest shakeup to the constitutional makeup of the United Kingdom, and Wales in particular, was the UK Internal Market Act. This legislation allowed the UK government to directly invest and become involved in a wide range of policy areas within Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Union Connectivity Review is also a prime example of the various overlapping relationships between the governments in Cardiff Bay and Westminster, whereby both governments can feed in and hammer out a truly comprehensive set of policy objectives with serious ramifications for the future of transport policy in Wales.

The constitutional arrangement between the UK government and her devolved authorities is not a zero-sum game. Often when the UK government becomes involved in a project within a devolved nation, there is all manner of protests and objections. It is worth highlighting that in Wales, the UK spend is at least £19.5bn across all government departments in Wales. For reference, that is more than the entirety of the block grant for the Welsh government, which is £15bn annually. This takes many forms, be it pensions, defence or infrastructure investment, and few would argue that the UK government’s investment in Wales is unwelcome.

As we emerge from this post-Covid and post-EU environment, many will be looking at how we develop relationships between Westminster and the devolved authorities, city mayors, and regions. I am looking forward to these debates and ensuring “devolution” is more akin to “localism” and truly empowering communities.

Craig Williams is the Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire

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