Four nations and a constitution: the Conference on Devolution, 1919-1920

Four nations and a constitution: the Conference on Devolution, 1919-1920

Adam Evans (Cardiff University) examines the 1919-1920 Speaker’s Conference on Devolution through a four nations lens and its impact on government in the United Kingdom. What would the ramifications and results be of a constitutional convention today?

Rather than providing a moment of closure, the NO vote in the Scottish independence referendum appears to have fired the starting gun for a potentially far-reaching and perhaps transformative debate, or should that be debates, on the future of the British constitution. One strand of these discussions has been the suggestion, mooted most prominently and recently by Ed Miliband, that a constitutional convention should be held as a means of providing a pan-UK response to the both the independence referendum’s results and the experience of fifteen years of devolved government in the United Kingdom.   Such a convention might look like a leap in the dark, a constitutional innovation for a country whose constitution has long been seen as the product of gradual evolution, rather than rapid change and which doesn’t do joined-up territorial governance. Or would it?

While a convention may appear to be a leap into the unknown, in reality it would not be that unique an exercise. While not conventions in the form that is perhaps more commonly understood, the 1969-1973 Royal Commission on the Constitution and the 1919-1920 Speaker’s Conference on Devolution were both established as inquiries into the future make-up of the United Kingdom. While the Kilbrandon Commission is more familiar, for better or worse, to academic historians and constitutional experts, the Conference on Devolution has become little more than an obscure footnote in history.

Following the endorsement of a ‘subordinate legislatures’ resolution in the House of Commons on 4th June 1919, the Conference on Devolution was established in October that year with a remit to draw up a “scheme of legislative and administrative devolution within the United Kingdom”. This was an inquiry set up to explore devolution in the round, with a membership drawn from parliamentarians representing all of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom.

Over the course of 32 sessions, which stretched from October 1919 until April 1920, the Conference debated three key questions. Firstly, the question of unit size: would devolution based on regional or national lines, a debate that opened up the question of whether devolution was aimed at resolving existing ailments with Britain’s political institutions or whether it was focused around satisfying national sentiment. Secondly, it discussed the powers that would be devolved to these legislatures. Thirdly, the Conference grappled with the dilemma of the composition of the subordinate legislatures and their relationship with the Imperial Parliament.

While the Conference eventually resolved internal differences to agree that devolution would be on national lines and agreed the powers that should be devolved to these subordinate national legislatures, the Conference ended its work evenly divided on the question of how the subordinate legislatures should be constituted.  Split between advocates of Speaker Lowther’s intra-parliamentary ‘Grand Council’ scheme, which would see bicameral chambers for England, Scotland and Wales constituted from existing Parliamentarians, and Murray Macdonald’s plan of directly elected legislatures for England, Scotland and Wales.

In a previous article I suggested that the two main lessons of the Conference on Devolution and Kilbrandon for those interested in a UK constitutional convention were, firstly, that Westminster would seek to dominate the recruitment of convention members and, secondly, that it “would be liable to result in the rancorous scenarios of either outright gridlock or a slender majority won in the face of outright opposition.” I would briefly add another lesson, drawn from my studies of the Conference on Devolution: the four nations matter. This may seem a banal point, but a brief examination of the Conference’s report, let alone the archives highlights the strongly distinctive contributions made and the dilemmas posed by the individual nations of the UK.

In the case of Wales, strong lobbying from Welsh representatives was required to sway the broader conference membership that a strong national sentiment in Wales existed and desired equality of treatment in any system of pan-UK devolved government.  A reminder of the ambiguity that surrounded Wales’ place in the UK in the early twentieth century, a legacy effect of the stunted development of her political identity in comparison to her Scottish cousins. Similarly, Ulster’s precarious position in the union and her status as province, rather than nation, resulted in a fierce opposition among Ulster Unionists to the idea of ‘national’ devolution and a belief that if devolution had to happen it should instead be on a provincial or regional basis throughout the United Kingdom, thus rendering Ulster less of an anomaly.

Perhaps most prominently of all, was the role of England. The English Question is not a recent phenomenon, created as a by-product of New Labour’s devolution programme. England was as much an elephant in the room for the Conference as it is in today’s discussions about the future of the United Kingdom and as it will be if a Constitutional Convention does occur. The question of what to do about England bedevilled the Conference’s work and was at the heart of the protracted discussions about the unit size the devolved administrations would represent, amidst fears that an English legislature and executive would possess a mandate comparable to the Imperial Parliament and the British Government. Therefore while a convention may be unusual in enabling a holistic perspective of the constitution, this will not quell the idiosyncrasies that the four nations bring to the table. The UK nations and regions may all be brought together, but this does not mean that they will all sing in unison.

In the decades since the Conference’s proceedings concluded in stalemate, the Conference on Devolution has been consigned to the margins of political and constitutional history. Indeed, one could almost be forgiven for not knowing that the conference ever happened, let alone what its conclusions were. This is a state of affairs that needs redress.  At a time where developments in the component nations of the United Kingdom are again raising the prospect of a pan-United Kingdom inquiry into territorial governance, this forgotten episode in our constitutional history needs to be re-discovered and the lessons of its failure learnt.

Adam Evans is a PhD candidate at the Wales Governance Centre. His research focuses on constitutional politics in the United Kingdom.

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