“Give them rope” is no basis for government

I have never felt so uncomfortable about my country.

Apart from relief, I can not share in the general enthusiasm for the outcome of the Scottish referendum. I am delighted Scotland voted to stay with us. I am relieved so many voted, making the result undeniable. But I am horrified at the fractures it has opened up.

Scotland is divided. England has been provoked into defining her interests against – and not with – the other nations. Wales is abandoned. A house divided cannot prosper. And our house, the Union, is divided. Anyone who thinks we would be better without it is a fantasist. But those who would sustain it are consumed in securing their own interest.

English MPs are suddenly discovering devolution. Their enthusiasm might have something to do with the fact that they have never experienced it. “English votes for English laws” has a chilling ring for those outside. Similarly, Alex Salmond’s was a charlatan’s prospectus for an independent Scotland.

The Welsh Government now clings to Scottish coattails and calls for more power and more money. It shows rather less interest in taking responsibility for what it already has.

We are left with the consequences of a misguided devolution process which, to my shame, I supported at the time. Devolving power without responsibility, as Labour did to its client fiefdoms in Wales and Scotland, is a recipe for disaster. We now know where it leads: to separatism, division and nationalism.

Where do we go from here? Scotland will get more powers. That much we know. Reform of English local government is now inescapable. And Wales?

Wales wants more powers. Tax raising powers are on their way. They are likely to be joined by powers over energy and water. And Cardiff politicians long for control of the police and criminal justice.

The last concerns me most. It would do nothing to make Welsh communities safer. A large part of our population crosses the border every day. Splitting the criminal justice system between Cardiff and Bristol, or Wrexham and Chester adds needless cost and complication.

Policing is already devolved, in fact to a lower level than any currently Cardiff-controlled public service. Getting power out of Whitehall is fine. But centralising it in Cardiff gets us nowhere.

Because the actual experience of the Welsh Assembly has been, well, depressing. It has sucked power from below while swallowing money from above. And it has delivered very little for that.

Wales’ education was once famous in the UK; now it is more infamous. Terrifying failures in the Welsh NHS are met with a sheepish, sideways nod in private and North Korean style proclamations of success in public.

We ought to be able to talk about the failures of this Welsh Labour Government rather than the Assembly. But perhaps the greatest concern about devolution in Wales is that it has failed to deliver a single change of government.

Wales is, to all intents and purposes, a single party state. With that comes cronyism, incompetence, and a suffocating fog of consensus amongst the small circles that dominate Welsh administration.

These will not stay Welsh problems for long. Their implications, whether in the the NHS, education or elsewhere, will spill over into England.

For Labour, the Welsh Government is an embarrassment. For the Liberal Democrats, the situation is Wales is a rebuke to their blind faith in complicated voting systems.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party faces an almost irresistible temptation to give them power and let them hang. It will probably work but at what price?

Until we have seen any kind of change in government, an acceptance of financial responsibility, or some ability to deliver administrative reform, we cannot responsibly give Cardiff more.

Weak oversight has damaged the police enormously over the last 30 years. Until the Welsh administration demonstrates some ability to grapple with failing areas we cannot begin to contemplate Cardiff control of the police, still less the criminal justice system.

Local government is ripe for reform across the UK, including in Wales. The consequences of the Scottish referendum make change unavoidable. That is a good thing, if we handle it carefully.

Our aim must be to strengthen the Union. It is not broken, just neglected. Like all living things, it needs sustaining. We should strengthen political ties and pass power to people, not encourage new institutions to seek spurious grounds for ‘difference’ as the last round of devolution did.

When reform of local government in England begins in earnest – I hope with more mayors for our cities, directly elected council leaders, greater taxation powers and an end to ridiculous capping arrangements – perhaps Welsh local authorities should benefit from the same?

Scotland has proved, once again, how fundamental she is to the United Kingdom, and how capable of shaping its future. Wales is no less vital, and in many ways more deeply woven into the fabric of our national life.

We cannot progress by defining only our own interests – England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. What I learnt from this referendum is that I never want to be asked which are mine. They all are.

It may be tempting to for Conservative colleagues to hand powers to the Welsh Government and watch Labour flounder, as it certainly will. They should resist.

‘Give them rope’ might work but it is no basis for stable constitutional change.

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