The fallout from Brexit, a global pandemic and the continuing possibility of Scottish independence has made for a political landscape in the UK that is under acute pressure. Against this backdrop, and in her role as co-chair, Laura McAllister of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre explains why Wales has made a conscious decision to take hold of its own destiny with the formation of a new independent Commission to review its constitutional future.
We are in the middle of some of the biggest political changes of a generation. As the UK deals with new post-Brexit realities, copes with rising challenges around the Northern Ireland border and anticipates a second Scottish independence referendum, the union of the four nations is under threat as never before.
Wales’s political history has often seen us standing on the sidelines, reacting to events seemingly beyond our control. The newly formed Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales offers an opportunity to change this dynamic.
We intend to lead a national conversation about how Wales should be governed, enabling the people of Wales to take decisions into their own hands, guided by their ambitions for the kind of country they want to live in.
My co-chair Dr Rowan Williams, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, and I have been given a hugely exciting opportunity to press for meaningful change to the constitutional future of Wales – to help develop fit-for-purpose, sustainable and popular models of governance for our nation.
What are the Commission’s objectives?
Our two main objectives are broad and far-reaching, rightly so in order to be able to explore the whole suite of potential options for constitutional reform.
The first is to develop options for fundamental reform of the constitutional structures of the United Kingdom, in which Wales remains a part. The second is to consider and develop all progressive principal options to strengthen Welsh democracy and deliver improvements for the people of Wales.
To meet these objectives, we’ll need to review and evaluate how Wales is currently governed within the UK, and what improvements are needed. The Commission has a licence to be radical, in our methods and our conclusions, to explore options for governing Wales as a distinct nation within the existing UK, and also to explore the options for a future for Wales outside the Union. That, in itself, reflects a new confidence and self-belief in our ability to shape our own constitutional future.
Devolution is now over 20 years old and, for all its successes, is in need of reform. This will be a key initial focus. Is devolution working to get the best results for the people of Wales, and can it be strengthened?
Secondly, what are the merits and challenges of greater autonomy, including independence?
This is not about working to an artificial binary of two options – the status quo or independence. We will be looking at a broad spectrum of constitutional options. The aim is to produce a compelling and intelligible analysis so that all people in Wales can decide how they want to proceed. This will put Wales on the front foot, ready to meet whatever challenges arise. We hope that our work will resonate in the wider debate about the Union and its future.
How will the Commission engage the public?
The most important people in this discussion are the citizens of Wales. We want the Commission to kickstart a proper national conversation, which will not be an easy task. To do this, we’ll need to think creatively and constructively about how to involve everyone in this debate on the future of Wales. Actively seeking out responses at grass roots level will be essential to our work.
The Scottish independence referendum and Brexit showed that people are genuinely interested in how their country is run, but there is a level of trust we need to build before we start this political discourse with the public. Our aim is to make the Commission a platform for anybody who has a view about Wales’ future and how best it can be secured. This is about respectful listening, especially to voices that might not have been heard before.
How we engage with the public has to be a proactive and deliberate process. The Commission will run for two years, which will give time to engage in a meaningful way that grounds constitutional change in its practical impact on people’s lives, rather than rushing to engage for the sake of it before we really know what we’re asking people to share with us.
Our hope is that we get to listen to the widest spectrum of opinions and perspectives. The work of the Commission is a tremendous opportunity for every citizen to engage and be heard. If that happens, we can generate a report with conclusions that reflect a mature consensus among those that matter, the people of Wales.
Who is on the Commission?
Nine individuals join Rowan and me to make up the 11 members of the Commission. Together, we make an interesting, expert and diverse team (I hope!). We’re keen to make sure that we listen to new perspectives on politics and the constitution, which will be key to finding different answers to long-running questions.
The nine appointed Commission members joining us are:
Anwen Elias – Reader in Politics at Aberystwyth University;
Miguela Gonzalez – Diversity and inclusion practitioner and a former journalist;
Michael Marmot – Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London and Director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity;
Lauren McEvatt – Former Conservative UK government special adviser to the Wales Office;
Albert Owen – Former Labour MP for Ynys Mon from 2001 to 2019;
Philip Rycroft – A civil servant for 30 years, including his last posting as Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the EU;
Shavanah Taj – General Secretary, Wales TUC;
Kirsty Williams – Former Member of the Senedd and Minister for Education in the Welsh Government during the Fifth Senedd;
Leanne Wood – Former Member of the Senedd for Rhondda and former Leader of Plaid Cymru.
We’ll be supported by a panel of experts who will bring expertise in areas including governance, law, the constitution, the environment, business, economics, and finance. The Commission is also supported by Welsh Government officials who provide our secretariat. However, we are clear that the Commission will be entirely free to develop our thinking as we see best, without direction from elsewhere. This gives us the freedom to determine the broadest range of options for Wales’s constitutional future.
Naturally, the commissioners will have their own opinions and views –but it is very clear after our early meetings that we are all committed to listening to evidence put before us with an open mind, with an attitude of curious objectivity, a willingness to challenge and be challenged, and always with an eye to finding innovative solutions to meet Wales’ needs.
About the author
Laura McAllister is co-chair of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales. She is a Professor of Public Policy and the Governance of Wales at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre and an expert on devolution and Welsh politics and elections.