After Brexit: Toward a Multipolar United Kingdom

This article was published in Nation.Cymru on 18 June 2017 as “We should aim for Home Rule, not independence.”

The Crisis is upon us

No one can argue in good faith that Brexit will be good for Wales.

The fact, moreover, that this historical catastrophe will be orchestrated by a deluded Tory-DUP regressive alliance only adds insult to injury. The breathing room won by Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in the EU will be no more.

Indeed, Wales will be one of the biggest losers in the implementation of the “will of the people” – hundreds of millions in EU funding and a withdrawal from the single market which constitutes 67% of our exports.

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Let me be clear: we are being locked in the cage of the British single market, one dominated by London, during a period moreover in which there will be disruption of international trade.  Over the next decade, over 750 trade agreements will have to be negotiated by the Westminster establishment through the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

In this extreme terrain, the Welsh economy is clearly under tangible threat.

Agriculture may undergo massive dislocation due to increased international competition and the removal of EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies. These pressures – in the absence of any UK commitment to support agriculture beyond 2020 – would lead to mass foreclosures of farming properties and disruption of local communities. Wales will become a vassal of the impersonal power of the WTO.

Indeed, the WTO frowns upon agricultural subsidies as undermining competition – and, like the failed TTIP treaty, will penalise and allow law suits by multi-national corporations against countries which violate competition rules. The EU CAP subsidies remain only due the fact that it is the world’s largest market and therefore has quite considerable clout in international trade negotiations. Without the protection of the EU, Wales truly faces an existential crisis.

What is to be done?

In that the crisis is upon us, we can ask, with Dr Huw Williams, “What is to be done?” (27 March 2017, Nation) Since the general election, many have offered their thoughts on the situation for Wales and what our response as a nation should be to the threat.  Williams, for his part, remarks on a recent poll which indicated a rise in support for independence among Welsh voters, his focus being upon Labour Party members.  Nevertheless, his real intention, while celebrating open debate in our nascent public sphere, is to position Labour at the “centre” of the debate on the future of Welsh democracy.  Williams defines the centre through his reference to FM Carwyn Jones’ alleged “radical vision for devolution.”

Iwan Morgan and Jason Morgan, on the contrary, are among those in recent Nation articles calling for an intensification of focus upon Welsh independence – and specifically by Plaid Cyrmu – the Party of Wales. While the former outlines the positive case for independence in regards to enhanced powers of self-government, the latter has called for Leanne Wood to resign for failing to achieve an electoral breakthrough and not adequately promoting the cause of independence.

I would like to argue that Williams and the two Morgan’s represent two sides of the same coin, neither willing to confront a simple fact: Welsh devolution is incomplete, it is a construction site in which we are building Welsh democracy. For his part, Williams is hardly forthright when he speaks of Carwyn Jones’ (or the Labour Party’s) commitment to a “radical vision of devolution” for Wales.  Indeed, Jones and his Westminster Welsh Labour MPs have utterly failed to enact a robust devolutionary settlement either by blocking Plaid Cymru initiatives or simply abstaining on key legislation which would have given additional powers to Wales. Indeed, it can be argued that every advance of Welsh democracy – including devolution itself – has been pushed primarily by Plaid Cymru. The One Wales coalition, for instance, gave us the 2011 referendum, and the competency to enact primary legislation. The first piece of legislation was the Welsh Language Act.

Neither have the advocates of instant independence confronted the fact that devolution is the process by which we are literally building the Welsh state. Iwan Morgan speaks of all the positive aspects of independence – but all the powers he mentions would already be possible through an expansion of powers and competencies of the National Assembly.  The idea of independence (one with which does not sit well with most Welsh people) is no substitute for the hard work of building Welsh democracy in the form of Home Rule.

In the wake of the recent election results, I would like to play the role of devil’s advocate.

First of all, no one was expecting a big surge for Plaid Cymru in the general election.  Most people were hoping for one or two seats. Indeed, Jason Morgan demanded in “The bottom line: Plaid Cymru must make gains” (1 June 2017, Nation) that one additional seat was necessary. It is strange therefore that he would call for Leanne Wood’s resignation when she fulfilled his basic requirement.  He also complains in “It is time for Leanne to go” (15 June 2017, Nation) about the progressive politics of Plaid Cymru, feminism and the lack of focus on independence.  He seems not to grasp where he is and who the voters are: Wales is a progressive country – otherwise Labour would not gain 75% of the parliamentary seats. Jeremy Corbyn, moreover, would not even have been possible without the anti-austerity alliance of Leanne Wood, Nicola Sturgeon and Caroline Lucas in the 2015 general election.

While it is interesting moreover that Labour would be ready (if necessary) to colonise the independence movement, it is clear that they will not go that route any time soon.  In this light, would a party which does emphasise independence do any better, as Iwan Morgan suggests in “It’s time for Plaid to make the case for independence?” (16 June 2017, Nation)  I would argue, against both Morgan’s, that independence clearly harms Plaid Cymru’s voting share at the polls. Indeed, while a solid case can be made for independence in abstracto, the pathway to independence is rarely discussed in detail.  That is because it relies upon the hard work of building Welsh democracy in the form of Home Rule.

Home rule has long been the goal of Plaid Cymru – although its precise meaning has not been clearly and consistently conveyed to the voters.  What is important here is that Home Rule or Devo-max seeks to build Welsh democracy initially within the context of the United Kingdom, our beloved “Family of Nations.” This has yet to be fully attempted. Moreover, building Home Rule creates the conditions of possibility for independence through a process of political, economic, social and cultural development.

My argument surrounding independence is based upon the simple principle:

If the constitutional design and political economy of the United Kingdom cannot accommodate our aspirations for a robust Welsh democracy, then the question of independence becomes inescapable.

At this point in a long history, there is much reason to doubt that the British state would ever allow Welsh democracy to come to fruition.  Yet, what is the British state – or better, who is the British state?  Much is possible in the context of Parliamentary sovereignty and Labour did in fact deliver devolution in 1999.  Yet, since this time, it has only been Plaid Cymru which has pushed the process further: and this has been Plaid Cymru’s longstanding policy.

The Tories and Labour have maintained Wales in a state of arrested development.  Only a Plaid Cymru government in the National Assembly can begin to liberate Welsh democracy.

After Brexit, in order to avoid the homogeneity of a London-dominated unipolar UK, it will be necessary to create a multipolar UK. Home rule in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales will allow the emergence of countervailing poles to re-balance the UK political economy.  This is possible in the context of current devolutionary tendencies: much has been achieved by Scotland, for instance.  It is important to remember that devolution is a constitutional project to ameliorate democratic deficiencies with regards to minority nations.  The same project can be harnessed to transform the political economic structure of the UK after Brexit.

This is why, for the next elections to what will then be called the Welsh Parliament, Plaid Cymru must emphasise a renewed and consistent focus on building Home Rule. In this context, independence would be the stick to the carrot of authentic devolution. Plaid Cymru, over the next few years, must educate the Welsh populace on how devolution can allow us to “take back control.”  Indeed, home rule is a much more tangible offering for a population where the vast majority are still wary of the spectre of independence.

I feel that proponents of independence, in their enthusiasm, often forget that we still need to build the Welsh state – and that much of this work can be done prior to independence.  This work is done by building home rule and the establishment of a true Welsh social democracy.  Home rule is something people can grasp and understand, and thankfully, it is 90% of the way to independence (if that is the path Welsh citizens decide to travel.)

 

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We Must Not Surrender to Child Poverty

This was published by Plaid Cymru Aberystwyth, 14 April 2017.

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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.