Professor Laura McAllister 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. In this blog she explains the aims of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales that she co-chairs, and why this work presents a unique opportunity to shape Wales’s future relationship with the UK, with Ireland and with Europe.
Even before the pandemic it was clear that Wales and the United Kingdom face a period of immense change. The impacts of Brexit are beginning to be felt and many are still unknown. Campaigning for another Scottish Independence referendum is ramping up and Sinn Fein are set to become the largest party in Stormont among increasing calls for Irish reunification.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is under threat like never before. Historically, and regrettably, Wales’ role has been to watch from the sidelines, and then scramble to react to events beyond its control. The Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales is our chance to rewrite this script and to take control of our own future.
We are tasked with leading 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.
To do this successfully, we must put all options on the table and examine them carefully, without prejudice or political bias. The broad objectives given to us by the Welsh Government empower us to look at Wales’ constitutional arrangements more expansively than has ever been done before.
The first objective is to develop options to reform the constitutional structures of the United Kingdom, in which Wales remains an integral part. The second is to develop options to strengthen Welsh democracy and deliver improvements for the people of Wales.
The Commission is free 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 freedom reflects a new confidence that the people of Wales can shape our own constitutional future. This includes weighing up the merits and challenges of greater autonomy, including independence.
2022 marks 25 years since Wales said yes to devolution, and over a decade since a further referendum endorsed full legislative powers for the Senedd.
The world has moved on in the last quarter of a century and is continuing to change. Wales has to be prepared for the possibility of radical change in the structure of the UK. This Commission is a chance to put us on the front foot, able to meet whatever challenges arise.
To meet our objectives, we’ll evaluate how Wales is currently governed within the UK, and what improvements are needed. We need a functional, responsive democracy at every level, but what does that look like? What set of tools are required for it to deliver? And upon what principles or values should it be based?
This is not about an artificial choice between the status quo or independence. We will look at a broad spectrum of constitutional options. Our goal is to produce a high quality analysis to enable the people of Wales to decide how they want to proceed. Our citizens will be at the heart of our inquiry. As well as speaking to politicians and constitutional experts, we will listen to everybody with a view about Wales’ future and how it can best be secured. This is about respectful listening, particularly to those voices that might not usually be heard. They deserve the same respect as experts.
The Commission will run for two years, which will enable us to hear the widest spectrum of opinions, and ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to be heard.
Like every country in the world, Wales’ future will be influenced by the external context, not least our relationship with Ireland. We have a common heritage and our governments have committed to deepening the relationship between our countries. As we look at potential constitutional options, Wales’s ability to engage internationally, to maximise trade, safeguard our common environment and share our culture and heritage will be important considerations.
Equally, Wales’s relationship with the EU, the world’s biggest trading bloc, will be a vital part of the external context. With our strong manufacturing and exporting history, access to the world’s biggest market will be key to millions of people’s lives in Wales, and must factor in to our thinking.
In addition to our National Conversation with citizens, we are talking to governments, business, and organisations representing the whole of civic society in Wales. Our universities and education institutions play a huge part in Welsh life and will make an important contribution to the debate.
My co-chair, Dr Rowan Williams, and I are joined by nine Commissioners, and together, we make an expert and diverse team. Naturally, the commissioners will have their own experiences 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 and put Wales on the front foot in meeting the challenges that lie ahead.