Nick Clegg delivers speech on devolution

Clegg addresses Cardiff on the issue of devolution

Thom Hollick

On Thursday the 14th of June, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg took time out of his busy ministerial schedule to visit the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff Bay, and give a speech to the Wales Governance Centre, a body comprising members of Cardiff University Law and Politics departments. The speech, entitled Power and Responsibility: Where next for devolution? was delivered to an audience in the Pierhead Building consisting mostly of AMs, but also a small contingent of academics from the University and press.

As a cabinet minister with a special responsibility for constitutional reform, Mr Clegg’s views on the future of devolution and the distribution of power away from the Westminster Bubble will prove very significant in shaping the political future of wales in the uncertain years to come, so all attendees where very eager to hear what he had to say on the subject. It is relatively uncommon for leaders of the three main UK parties to give speeches on welsh politics; indeed Mr Clegg told us he was the first to do so since the mid 1990’s, thanks in his opinion to the relatively devolved federal structure of the Liberal Democrat Party.

Unfortunately, some of the audience may have been left disappointed, since Mr Clegg in fact spent a good portion of his lecture outlining the challenges of the political situation in Europe, rather than the specific politics of devolution. Of course you can make the argument, as Mr Clegg did, that the two processes are simply two sides of the same coin; as modern pressures of globalisation often force power to migrate from central governments, both up and down. It is no coincidence that the EU has come of age as a political entity simultaneously with devolved assemblies such as those in Wales and Scotland.

Mr Clegg described it as one of the major dividing lines in politics today; those who understand the ways in which nation-states are losing power to supra- and sub-national bodies, and those who reject it, and become determined to maintain the historically strong nation-state in the same form it has always existed in. This could be read as a veiled criticism of some of his coalition partners in the conservative backbenches, who strongly oppose transferring policy capabilities to both the European Union and the UK regions, whenever a vote to such effect is taken in Parliament. The Liberal Democrats on the other hand are firmly committed to the diffusion and decentralisation of powers, having even go so far as to make a manifesto commitment to a federal political structure for the UK, with each region having similar levels of self-governance to that of American States.

It is in this context that Nick Clegg made a fairly passionate case in defence of a multi-levelled structure of political governance, despite the challenges that all levels face at this time. He argued that the economic and political crises in Europe should not be used as a justification for the strengthening of national governments at the expense of European institutions or devolved administrations.  Historically, European integration has progressed much more successfully when times of crisis have provided some sort of impetus for change, but we must not, Mr Clegg stressed, surrender this debate to populist extremists. Political developments have always lagged behind economic realities, meaning that now a great political leap is needed. But is there any appetite for this?

On the specific issue of Welsh Devolution, Mr Clegg was adamant; the process must progress until the Assembly Government has the power to raise taxes to fund its own activities. Only then he said would it be held properly accountable to Welsh voters. While technical discussions about tax and spend policies can often leave electorates cold, he said it was vital that welsh politicians find an engaging way to communicate this to the people.

Although much of his speech was quite negative, bemoaning the sorry state of political and economic institutions across the UK and Europe, Nick Clegg did end on a more positive note; calling for a more open and consensual political system, rather than the current rotten model, which he described as being driven by blame and conflict.

gair rhydd requested an interview with Nick Clegg, but unfortunately he declined.