This morning, Wales Online suggests that there may soon be another Supreme Court showdown between the British Government and the Labour administration in Wales.
The cause of the dispute is the decision of a majority of members of the Welsh Assembly to reject the Government’s planned reforms to trades union legislation.
The AMs argue that the bill intrudes on the delivery of public services, responsibility for which are devolved. Yet the Government maintains that employment legislation is reserved to London.
One slightly hyperbolic commentator described the coming showdown as “an epic battle about who runs Wales”, whilst a Labour AM has accused the Welsh Tories – who are supporting the Government – of failing to stand up for “the constitutional interests of Wales and the Welsh Assembly”.
Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, revealed the scope of his constitutional ambitions when he declared in June that: “The days of Parliamentary sovereignty are numbered.”
The Government should make very clear that the days of Parliamentary sovereignty are here to stay, and be firm in defending their Westminster’s role in the life of all parts of the kingdom.
A sovereign Parliament is the very foundation of the British constitution and should, in the context of devolution, be understood to be British sovereignty. It is what makes the United Kingdom a sovereign state.
Even countries which are explicitly federal, such as the United States or Germany, do not vest sovereignty in their provincial legislatures.
(They may vest it in a codified constitution, which is a separate discussion. But whether in a document or a Parliament, sovereignty remains central.)
This is a fact overlooked by those pro-Union people who advocate transferring sovereignty to the devolved institutions (including anybody who wants to make the Scottish Parliament “permanent”).
If the Government, and the pro-UK parties, want to stabilise the constitution, then they have to start standing up for the centre.
This means defending the legitimacy of the British Government and Parliament to make decisions on behalf of the British people on reserved issues – and being confident in exercising their mandate in such matters.
Further, any attempt to bring about a rational “end point” to devolution and stabilise the constitution must concede that there may be instances where it is right to restore some powers to Westminster – for example, Northern Ireland’s anomalous and hugely disruptive welfare responsibilities.
Likewise should Parliament’s authority to legislate for employment matters in Wales require clarifying legislation then the Government should not be afraid to consider it.
The courts can only rule what is, not what should be, and the process of devolution since 1998 has been too ineptly handled to deserve to be frozen in aspic.
To take this course they will have to battle not only the nationalists, but also those professed pro-Union politicians in the devolved legislatures whose self-interest leads them to undermine London at every turn. First amongst the latter is the First Minister of Wales.
Since I first started covering devolved affairs for this site I’ve had numerous opportunities to highlight how Welsh Labour, taking inspiration from their Scottish comrades, have evolved into a resentful, pseudo-nationalist bunch.
For example, when their education minister denounced Michael Gove for “colonial attitudes” for comparing the English and Welsh education systems, or when their public services minister expressed complete disinterest in who “English Labour choose” as their next (British) leader.
There are two drivers of this phenomenon. The first is the simple, self-interested rationale of all devolved politicians to seek to displace political blame to London and use that as an excuse to bolster their own position.
An awful lot of devolved discourse can be distilled down to: “The blame lies elsewhere. The solution is to increase my power and prestige.”
(A similar conjunction of interests applies to those journalists who cover those institutions, as they also profit when their subjects become more prestigious and exercise power over more areas of life.)
The second is something diagnosed by angry Labour activists after the party’s disappointing general election result: Jones’ fixation on Plaid Cymru.
He’s determined to prevent Labour being outflanked on national issues: so he champions the Welsh language, disparages London, and takes an “every power I can get” approach to devolution. Yet this misreads the actual strategic challenge facing his party.
As one despairing Labour commentator pointed out, this has let him get outflanked by the Conservatives in a country which is “not becoming more Welsh or more left wing”.
Devolved politicians doubtless have important contributions to make to constitutional discussions. But it would be remiss for the Government to neglect the fact that some of them are would-be big fish, lobbying for small ponds.
And if Jones wants a sovereign Senedd, he should join Plaid – for only independence could deliver one.