Manifesto Check: Surprise! Plaid Cymru calls for radical devolution of powers

Plaid Cymru are seeking to rally powers to Wales. Flashflash/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

That Plaid Cymru advocates more devolution for Wales must be one of the least surprising findings of The Conversation’s Manifesto Check. Yet there are two elements in the framing of the party’s arguments, which are noteworthy.

The first is the party’s stress on parity with Scotland: “Wales should have the same powers as Scotland”. This is an argument that the party believes has considerable appeal in Wales. Indeed, both Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones and Conservative Secretary of State Stephen Crabb have argued that Wales should be offered – though not necessarily accept – the same powers on offer to Scotland through the Smith Commission process and its aftermath.

Plaid Cymru both removes the caveat from this position, and extends the argument. For Plaid, parity of treatment with Scotland also means devolving those areas of policy that are already currently still organised on an England and Wales basis.

From popular to polarising

From this general position there follows a long list of policy areas in which Plaid advocates further devolution. They can be divided into three groups: the first and least contentious are those areas that the recent, all-party St David’s Day process has already agreed should be devolved. These include energy, water and sewerage, ports and harbours, the Wales and border rail franchise, in addition to speed limits and bus and taxi regulation.

The St David’s Day process also agreed that Wales should move to a Scottish style “reserved powers” model of devolution. This means switching from a system where the Welsh Assembly’s powers limited to a specific set of areas, to a system where it can legislate on anything except a set of matters which are “reserved” by Westminster.

A second group consists of those policy areas that the independent, all-party Silk Commission recommended should be devolved to Wales, but on which no consensus could be achieved in the St David’s Day process due to opposition from either Labour or the Conservatives (or both). They include policing, youth justice, prisons and probation, Network Rail, and the Welsh language TV channel, S4C.

The final group consists of those areas that the Silk Commission did not advocate devolving to Wales, but which nevertheless form part of Plaid Cymru’s maximalist vision on devolution. These include broadcasting, the Crown Estate and public sector pay and conditions, Network Rail, and the remainder of the criminal justice system. It is true that Wales’ first minister Carwyn Jones is on record calling for the establishment of an autonomous justice system and a settlement on the rail system. But these remain contentious topics within both Welsh and UK politics, and were therefore not agreed upon by the Silk Commission.

Calls for a constitution

The other noteworthy element of Plaid’s position is its advocacy of a written Welsh constitution. While various Government of Wales Acts have acted as the functional equivalent of a constitution for “devolved Wales”, a full written Welsh constitution would be much more far-reaching in its impact.

It is not clear how a Welsh constitution would operate within the context of UK whose constitution remains un-written. Nor is it made explicitly clear how such a constitution would be developed, although the reference to a “citizen-led constitution” suggests that Plaid have been influenced by the kinds of processes recently witnessed in countries such as Iceland and Ireland.

For more on Plaid Cymru’s political reforms, click here.