This article has been written by Adrian Mason.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill has completed its Second Reading in Parliament, and attention now focuses on its Committee Stage. The purpose of the Bill is simply to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 at the date of our departure from the EU, and then to translate existing European Union law into domestic British law. Once this is done, Parliament will be able to retain, amend or repeal nearly 44 years of EU-derived law. This will, in effect, fulfil the mandate of the Referendum of 2016, giving our own Parliament full control of our laws. The resulting legislation will be interpreted by our own Supreme Court, and not the Court of Justice of the European Union. The consequence will be the restoration of the United Kingdom’s freedom to determine its own future, free from foreign regulations, directives and courts. We will regain our lost sovereignty.
There are, however, potential impediments to this process. Since 1999, some devolved competence has been granted to Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They have raised concerns that some or all the powers recovered by Westminster will not filter their way to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
In Wales, the Government of Wales Act 2006 sets out twenty areas where the Welsh Assembly has legislative competence. These include vital services such as education and training, health, agriculture and fisheries. The Welsh Government has expressed its concern that not all powers within these areas will be transferred from Westminster to Cardiff after the UK leaves the European Union. Indeed, they say that they want a complete transfer of those powers from Westminster to Cardiff Bay in those devolved areas. However, this is simplistic argument. These powers are currently embodied within an EU framework and once we leave the EU there is a compelling reason to retain these powers in Westminster. Can you imagine the chaos if agriculture operated to different standards in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland? We need an overarching uniformity of approach, with the devolved administrations fine-tuning policy as they see fit. Thus, the Welsh farming unions are wholly supportive of a UK-wide competence for agriculture. The same can also be said for fisheries and so on.
Against this backdrop, it is important to consider whether the Welsh Government speaks for the whole of Wales in these matters. At a recent open meeting of the Parliamentary Welsh Affairs Select Committee held in Prestatyn, North Wales, a very large majority of attendees expressed grave reservations over the proposition that Cardiff Bay should be entrusted with extensive new powers. This may, at first glance, seem a strange concept: that Welsh people would want Westminster to directly retain these powers over the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff. It is only when you look beneath the surface that you begin to understand why many in North Wales feel disenfranchised by a government based so many miles away in Cardiff Bay.
There is a widespread view amongst many in North Wales that the Welsh Labour government has little interest in promoting the economic wellbeing of North Wales. The perception is that there is an unfair bias towards the South Wales region in economic matters and that we are often overlooked when it comes to capital infrastructure improvements. Anyone who has been to Cardiff in the last few years will see visible evidence of a City that is booming, in contrast to large parts of North Wales, where growth has been considerably slower. This suspicion is exacerbated by recent developments following the Wales Act 2012. Under the Act, the Welsh Government will be allowed to borrow up to £1 billion. That money has now been earmarked for the South Wales M4 corridor and North Wales will probably receive very little. The Act also allows the Welsh Government to raise money through income tax. The general feeling is that any extra money raised will be heading the same way.
So, why has such a hostile feeling towards the Welsh Labour government developed to such levels in North Wales? One answer is that people feel a demographic disenfranchisement. This has partly to do with geographical distance between Cardiff and the North, as well as cultural distinctions. The North feels somewhat ‘cut off’ from the South. This argument has credence when you look at journey times between, say, Llandudno or Holyhead and Cardiff, which can amount to four to five hours by both rail and car. That geographical divide becomes all the more marked when you consider how easy it is for us in the North to reach Chester, Liverpool, Manchester or even London.
With that in mind, the Welsh Government should be encouraging this important economic link and seeking ways to enhance existing arrangements. A good start would be to establish a regular and direct link to Manchester Airport which would encourage international investment and allow us here in the North to have easy access to the entire World.
The second reason is more controversial, and probably unpalatable to the Welsh Government, but equally important. We in North Wales have always looked to the North West of England to trade and do business. We have long, historically close links with our English neighbours and a good deal of cross border investment and infrastructure exists between us. Traditionally, economic, social and cultural relationships with Cardiff and South Wales have been sparse, which is understandable given the mountainous geography of Wales.
Then we have political considerations. The Welsh Labour government’s power base vests heavily in South Wales. Twenty two out of the twenty nine Labour Assembly Members represent South Wales Constituencies. Contrast that with just four who represent seats in North Wales, three of which are clustered represent constituencies in the North East. That demonstrates a state of political weakness for the governing party in vast swathes of North Wales and consequently less political interest.
The recent proposals for a ‘Tourism Tax’ shows us just how out of touch the ‘Cardiff bubble’ is from us here in North Wales, where tourism is the lifeblood of the region, and where such a tax would do significant economic damage. But, from a Labour perspective, there is little motivation for looking to the needs and requirements of the North, because there are very few Assembly seats up here for Welsh Labour.
Dissatisfaction with Labour’s lack of interest in the North became very clear in the 2016 Assembly elections, when 9,409 of North Wales voters marked their ballot papers in favour of the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party – more than those who voted for the Liberal Democrats.
With these considerations in mind, there is little wonder that many in North Wales are suspicious of the motives of a perceived ‘South Wales government’ consistently putting their region ahead of the North. So, when it comes to the repatriation of powers from the EU, it is an entirely understandable reaction when people would prefer these powers to be administered by London, rather than Cardiff. The need for parity across the entire United Kingdom in areas such as agriculture and fisheries is a sensible and logical policy. They are matters too important to be used as political point scoring by a Welsh Government which has yet to convince many that they can be trusted to act with uniformity across the whole of Wales, let alone across the United Kingdom.