This was published by Plaid Cymru Aberystwyth, 14 April 2017.
Campaigning on an estate in Penparcau, I hear families talking, clearing dishes, watching television and putting children to bed. There are shrieks and laughter from children seeking to squeeze a little more life from the day. I suddenly remember the damning fact that more than a third of children in Penparcau live in poverty. I feel anger that so many children have been failed by our political and economic leaderships – their lives diminished, stolen, plunged onto a – more than likely – trajectory of life-long deprivation.
Incumbent politicians prefer that failure remains invisible, and for the most part, child poverty is shuffled out of view. We are only made to face the terrible truth when the yearly headlines reappear: “A quarter of UK children in poverty,” “200,000 Welsh children in poverty.” Each time, the headlines are met with the same excuses and obfuscations.
Since 1999, the successive governments under Welsh Labour have publicized their flagship policy to end child poverty by 2020.
Yet, by the end of 2016 – and after campaigning on “eradicating” child poverty in the May elections to the National Assembly – Labour announced it will fail to meet its target.
First and foremost, the Labour government blamed its failure squarely on the austerity policies and welfare reforms of the Liberal Democrat-Tory coalition and the current Conservative governments. Labour, taking a page from Plaid Cymru, also blamed the limited powers available for the National Assembly. Communities Secretary Carl Sargeant said:
“The Welsh Government does not hold the primary policy and fiscal levers, especially in terms of the welfare system, needed to enable us to deliver the significant changes needed.” (“No end to child poverty by 2020, Welsh Government says,” BBC, 13 December 2016)
With its belated complaint about a lack of powers, it may at first sight seem Labour had finally begun to recognise what Plaid Cymru has known all along: the urgency for an adequate constitutional settlement. But, that is certainly not the case. Indeed, Labour has surrendered to child poverty and to the “business as usual” which is its cause. Sargeant said:
“The issues we face can therefore only be tackled through new ways of working. Within a context of stretched resources and reducing budgets, we need to focus our efforts where we can have most impact with the levers we have available.” (BBC, 13 December 2016)
It is clear we must acknowledge the reality of what is and what is not “available”. Yet, Plaid Cymru contends we can do much more with what is available (like banning Zero Hours contracts, for example), and that we can, and must, continuously fight to increase what is “available” – in terms of funding and powers.
Instead of declaring a state of emergency, for instance, over palpable threats to the human rights of Welsh children, and demanding more powers for Wales, Labour acquiesced to pre-ordained failure by accepting a toxic status quo where one in three children will continue to live in poverty. Or, in their own words, Labour could have demanded the “primary policy and fiscal levers” for Wales in order to confront the unnecessary stain of child poverty.
Yet, it has long been clear that Labour is not inclined to demand more powers for Wales. Indeed, it was only Plaid Cymru, during its One Wales coalition with Labour in 2007, which prompted the 2011 Referendum which gave the National Assembly primary legislative competence. From this perspective, Labour’s original promise to eradicate child poverty was either an opportunistic lie or a terrible naivety.
The consequence of Labour’s reluctance to demand more powers – reflective of the ambivalence about devolution that has haunted it for decades – is that, on their own criteria, they will always fail to meet their objectives. They do not have the powers, but they do not want them either – and thus, Labour will always make promises it cannot keep.
In response to this blatant self-contradiction, those of us unwilling to surrender to child poverty must clearly lay out our desire to achieve the “primary policy and fiscal levers” which will allow us to realistically confront the endemic challenge we face.
Such an augmentation of a Welsh centre of gravity becomes even more important in the wake of Brexit. Indeed, one could very easily ask: if the UK does not wish to be ruled from Brussels, then why on earth would Wales wish to be ruled from London? Should we not take back control? Brexit necessitates a re-balancing of not only the UK single market, but also of the centres of constitutional power and responsibility within the UK.
Assuming for the moment that the UK will remain intact – a prospect that with each day seems to recede from view – it will be necessary to fulfil the ambitions of devolution through the establishment of home rule across the “family of nations”. London-rule, on its own, will never solve the problem of child poverty in Wales (or Northern Ireland). Yet, a robust Welsh government could solve this problem, and many others, if it had the “primary policy and fiscal levers”. Yet, given its past performance, it is highly unlikely that the Labour party will ever lead such a government.
Nevertheless, I will argue that home rule would be good for all the parties in Wales – if prosperity and self-governance is in fact our common goal. With home rule, Wales would have the powers to enact its own unique solutions to the challenges of child poverty, criminal justice, and socio-economic development, to name a few.
There are those of course who fear that home rule is merely a Trojan Horse for independence. If we look closely at this suggestion, however, they seem to be openly admitting that they would rather have Wales powerless and poor than to prosper through self-government.
We could however imagine the exact opposite of their fear. Indeed, it is possible that if Wales enjoyed home rule within an authentic “family of nations,” it may have little incentive to leave such an arrangement.
In reality, independence is always a possibility – regardless of home rule – and the proponents of Welsh independence are currently enjoying a significant surge in support in the wake of Brexit. In this way, the conflation of home rule and independence is a red herring.
At the end of the day, the question of Welsh independence will be decided by the Welsh people. Home rule however is a different question – it concerns more immediate issues of practical self-governance and social well-being, of the fulfilment of the rights and aspirations of the Welsh people within the UK. Home rule speaks to the urgency to build a better life for a people who have learned from centuries of experience that Wales does best when it controls its own affairs.
We must approach our situation simultaneously from two perspectives – firstly, we must work to get the maximum from the current system to best advantage at all levels of government, and secondly, we must work for the fulfilment of the devolutionary potential in the promotion of Welsh social, political, economic and cultural democracy.
We cannot surrender to child poverty – nor can we surrender to a political and economic order which makes us hop on one leg to gain our supper.
In this dangerous moment of history, it is more important than ever to have trustworthy hands at every level of government, hands that will support not only local communities but also the national interests of Wales – of her vulnerable pensioners, hard-pressed families, disabled, youth and children.
Under the guiding idea of home rule, we can build a Wales in which the fundamental rights of Welsh citizens are respected. We must work to build the alternative, one that will allow us to truly eradicate child poverty and many other social challenges.
Dr James Luchte professor of philosophy, author and writer. He is a Plaid Cymru candidate for Aberystwyth Council from the Ward of Penparcau.