Like Scotland, but unlike England and the Union, Cymru has been engaging in an intellectually serious and rigorous consideration of its own constitutional future. The publication of the Welsh Government Constitutional Commission’s report signals a real change for political discourse in Cymru.
And this report is confident as well as serious. At a time when there is a growing crisis of democratic legitimacy at Westminster, and the UK government uses a wholly manufactured refugee crisis as the rationale for an attack on the rule of law, the Welsh Constitutional Commission reasserts the importance of creating a functioning, inclusive democracy, rooted in consent and participation. It is a reminder that Cymru and Scotland are engaged in a far more mature and confident democratic discourse than can be found at post-Brexit Westminster.
The feasibility of independence
But the most important development is the clear statement by the Constitutional Commission that independence is feasible. This is the unanimous conclusion of a group whose members were drawn from across Cymru’s political and civic traditions. It includes members from all four parties represented in the current Senedd – three of which hold a predominantly Unionist official position.
This matters because it changes the nature of the independence debate. It means the debate is no longer about whether independence can be achieved, but whether it should. This has become an explicitly political debate.
In truth, that change has been happening anyway. For example, the debate around the economics of independence has shifted fundamentally in the last decade – from whether Cymru can afford to be independent to whether it can afford not to be. Part of the reason for that change lies in the way that both main parties at Westminster have embraced the political choices of austerity. But it also reflects a growing intellectual confidence in the independence movement.
The dilemma for Labour
This puts explicit pressure on Unionists to make the political case for the Union. Since moving to Cymru a decade ago, I have been struck by the complete absence of a real political case for the Union that goes beyond vague generalisations. That won’t do any more – and least of all when Brexit and its aftermath have seen fundamental changes to the Westminster constitution, made largely by stealth.
The dilemma is perhaps most acute for Welsh Labour. It seems likely that there will soon be a Labour government in Westminster, possibly elected by a landslide. And Welsh Labour is currently electing a new leader to succeed Mark Drakeford as First Minister. But the visions of both candidates in Wales, for public services and the economy, appear to depend on the willingness of incoming Chancellor Rachel Reeves to turn on the funding taps. Something which, on the basis of her public statements to date, seems very unlikely to happen.
It is increasingly obvious that devolution offers responsibility but without power: the responsibility to deliver for Cymru without the power to raise the revenue to fund better public services. With a Labour government in office in London, Welsh Labour surely cannot relish going into a Senedd election in 2026 defending that position.
Constitutional Commission calls for change
But there are questions for other parties too. The Constitutional Commission retains federalism as an option, but with a more critical eye. It now seems at least possible that neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland – which is always going to be a special case constitutionally in any event – will remain within the Union. Successful models of federalism need several federal entities, but England remains uninterested.
Moreover, a federalism that treats Cymru as an English region with a dragon on its flag is not going to cut much ice here. The Liberal Democrats’ federalism looks rather shakier following the Constitutional Commission report.
Above all, the report is clear that things must change. It raises the spectre of a devolution settlement that needs fundamental reform to survive. But also holds an implicit reminder that such reform remains in the gift of Westminster. A Westminster without the slightest interest in delivering it, let alone having any incentive to do so.
This is an important moment. The coming of a Labour government in Westminster, if committed to economic austerity and without a programme for constitutional change, could shift the tectonic plates of Cymru’s political discourse yet further. We’re in for an interesting few years.