There are on-going debates in Wales about how the country should be run. These reflect different views on the situation today and give different options for the future.
Up until 1999, most domestic policy for Wales – as for Scotland and Northern Ireland – was decided by a Secretary of State who was a member of the UK Government Cabinet and accountable to the Westminster Parliament. In 1999, a National Assembly for Wales was established, a regional government directly elected by the people of Wales. This was part of a UK-wide programme of devolution introduced by the Labour Party, which also saw the creation of a parliament in Scotland and an assembly in Northern Ireland. These bodies were given a range of policy responsibilities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but without changing the ultimate sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament.
Wales’ constitutional arrangements have evolved quite significantly since 1999. Several Commissions have been established to examine the arrangements for governing Wales: these have considered whether Wales should be given decision-making and legislative powers in a larger number of policy areas and how to improve the relationship between the devolved and UK political institutions. As a result, over the years the National Assembly for Wales has gained new powers to make laws in devolved policy areas, to raise taxes and to change how it is elected. The National Assembly for Wales changed its name to Senedd Cymru (the Welsh Parliament) in 2020.
By today, the Welsh Government is responsible for proposing policies in areas including health, education, language and culture, environment and economy and it can collect some taxes. Senedd Cymru makes laws and holds the government to account. Other decisions affecting people living in Wales are taken by the UK Government and the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. These include defence, pensions, benefits, justice and policing, broadcasting and most taxes.
But these changes have not put an end to discussions about how Wales should be run. Recent events – such as Brexit, and the Covid-19 pandemic – have placed growing pressures on, and revealed problems with, the functioning of the Welsh devolution settlement. These developments became a backdrop for some changes in public opinion as various surveys indicated greater support for independence in Wales.
In 2021, a new Independent Commission on Wales’ Constitutional Future was established. The Commission[AE1] gathered the views of experts, politicians and citizens on how Wales should be governed in future, and published its final report in January 2024. It evaluated three constitutional options in detail: enhanced devolution (expansion and protection of Senedd Cymru’s powers), Wales within a federal United Kingdom, and an independent Wales. It concluded that each of these is a viable option for Wales in the long term, but they each have different strengths and weaknesses.
The Commission also made several recommendations for strengthening and protecting devolution in the short term.