But the fact that such a silly idea could ever have been agreed by all four parties tells a story in itself. The precedent most widely used is that in the 1997 referendums, the Scots were asked two questions, whilst the Welsh were only asked one. The difference was that the second question sought (and obtained) agreement to a limited power to vary income tax. It’s a very poor precedent though; asking a supplementary question of detail at the same time as a much bigger question of principle is very different from asking that ‘supplementary’ question of detail in isolation.
The problem was compounded, largely by the First Minister himself, in the 2011 referendum, when in response to a woeful lack of confidence in the case for legislative devolution, he gave a commitment that devolution of income tax would not happen without a further referendum. It was a wholly unnecessary commitment to make, and a silly one as well, as I thought at the time. But the result is that those who opposed legislative powers will feel, with some justification, cheated if income tax is now devolved without the referendum which they feel was ‘promised’. And since many of those are people within the Labour Party in Wales, that brings us right back to where we’ve always been on devolution in Wales – what does or does not happen is largely a result of the internal divisions of one party.
Perhaps things have moved on; perhaps the First Minister could now carry his party with him in taking the next step without a further referendum; perhaps the fact that the circumstances have changed will make it possible for him to try. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. At this stage, I’m not optimistic. We’ve been trapped into a ‘stupid’ referendum because of the Labour Party’s internal problems, and may need to find an alternative way around it.
But if we can’t sensibly hold a meaningful referendum on this single issue, and can’t avoid it either, is there an alternative? I’m not a fan of unnecessary referendums, but if we’re going to have one, and need to make it more meaningful, why not put together a package which offers Wales parity with Scotland on all issues and put that to a vote? All the signs are that that would be a winnable campaign for those of us who support further change, and it would be much more meaningful than a simple vote on income tax.