Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Wales after Britain?

Over at the Socialist Unity blog, they've reproduced Leanne Woods' piece from the latest Scottish Left Review, entitled Wales after Britain? In light of the ongoing process of devolution, it posits the important question of whether the UK can survive, and for how long? Discussion is already going on at Socialist Unity.

Wales After Britain?


Politics in Wales has changed dramatically in the last decade. From winning the yes vote in the referendum to set up the Assembly in 1997 by just 6,721 votes, it’s difficult to imagine now how devolution could be rolled back.

Tom Nairn has been arguing for more than 30 years that the break-up of Britain is inevitable. More recently he points to the devolution referendums in the two and a half of the four countries which make up the British Isles to show that he was right. He argues that devolution will gather its own momentum, and that the future of Britain is over. The unanswerable question is how long has it got left?

In response, Gordon Brown and his New Labour mates are playing the “Rule Brittania” card in a desperate attempt to shore up a British identity which is on its way out. “British Jobs for British People”, wrapping himself up in the Union Jack, suggestions of a British day and a British motto runs alongside anti-immigrant and asylum rhetoric and demands that everyone speaks English. In a country where more than 20 per cent and growing of the people speak Welsh, and our citizens who were born or who have relatives in other countries speak a wide variety of languages form all over the world, this sort of talk doesn’t go down too well. I’d guess it’s irrelevant, if not offensive to many people in all four countries.

Meanwhile, there are a group of “progressive English patriots” who agree with Nairn’s break-up theory. They see Scotland and Wales wanting to free themselves form Westminster rule, perhaps also eventually a free and united Ireland. They want to make sure that England is not confused with Britain, and that their nation isn’t left behind. At the same time they are acutely aware of the need to couple their patriotism/nationalism with an anti racist stance and they are keen to distance themselves from the New Labour response to devolution as well as the fascist parties. It’s an interesting development which deserves attention and support from Welsh, Scots and Irish left nationalists. If the call for an English Parliament grows, the progress towards independence for the nations of Britain will accelerate.

So what are we doing in Wales? A year ago, Plaid Cymru entered into government for the first time in our history as part of a centre-left coalition with Labour. A key plank of that agreement was a commitment from Labour to deliver and campaign for a successful outcome in a referendum for a law making parliament within this Assembly term. If we get that yes vote, we’ll still have only a fraction of the powers currently enjoyed by the Scottish Parliament. We will be able to legislate freely on matters currently devolved, which would be an improvement on the current situation where Westminster can veto Welsh laws. But we’d still have no powers over criminal justice or any real macro-economic muscle. We’ll also still have no means to raise our own revenue.

Wales is at the bottom of the UK’s economic performance table. While the city of London continues to skew its economic policy to benefit the areas its immediate vicinity, the periphery loses out. With a history of significant industrial production, Wales should now be rich. But the areas which produced the wealth for Britain are today among some of the most economically disadvantaged in the whole of the European Union. These are the areas which were targeted by Thatcher in her obsession to crush union power, then forgotten. And these are the areas that now face further decline from New Labour’s regional pay plans and sickness benefits purge. It doesn’t have to be this way. An autonomous government responsible for two and a quarter million people could do a much better job of gearing macro -economic policy to meet the needs of people in the former industrial areas of Wales. It’s clear those needs have not been considered by successive Westminster governments.

If scientists are right about peak oil, and we can now be confident of a united scientific position on climate change, then the way economies work will have to change. Energy, food and water will become increasingly important and the economy is bound to reflect that. If oil prices continue to rise as they have of late, we’ll be forced to rethink how we use and obtain our energy. When Cuba’s energy supply was cut off at the end of the USSR, Cuban’s lost 30 per cent of their body weight in a year. Can we afford not to plan for a dramatic reduction in the availability of energy and potential implications?

Wales is in a fantastic position to become energy self sufficient. We have a large coastline with opportunities to harness the tides. We have lots of wind, rain, peat bogs and open countryside. A long-term plan to expand research and development, invest in new skills and training and government support for small Welsh businesses to produce microgenerators could put the infrastructure in place. This could be coupled with a national awareness raising programme, incentives for reducing consumption and growing and buying local food. Food and energy self-sufficiency could provide the key to self-government. According to the WWF, Cuba is the only sustainable country in the world. We could learn a lot from the Cubans.

While there may not be a consensus among political parties for Welsh self-government, there is for more devolution. There is also a growing awareness and consensus around climate change. Oil prices are forcing people to think about alternatives, while there is a strong anti-nuclear tendency in the Welsh government. To put the building blocks in place for food and energy self-sufficiency, there has to be more devolution. These challenges have reminded some of us in Plaid that we need to argue the case for self-government more clearly than ever before. Support for the idea won’t build until the debate takes place.

Left-wing Plaid MP Adam Price has recently called for a new “movement within a movement” to reaffirm the party’s long-term goals. He correctly claims that the younger members, those under 45, are strong believers in independence. It’s encouraging to note that we have a healthy-sized and growing youth membership and activist base. For a quarter of a century our opponents in the unionist parties have been allowed to define what Welsh independence means, which has resulted in smaller levels of support than we would like.

Vision is what is missing in politics today. A vision of a Wales without fossil fuels and nuclear is one which shouldn’t be difficult to sell. Armed with the arguments for self-government, Plaid Cymru offers a vision of a different, more equal, sustainable Wales, one that can inspire a younger generation. With the independence debate raging ahead in Scotland, Plaid cannot allow Wales to be left behind. The thinking and the campaigning for a better Wales after Britain has to start now.

Leanne Wood was elected to the National Assembly in 2003 to represent the South Wales Central region. She is now Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for Sustainability and the Environment.

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1 comment:

claude said...

Take a look at this post about how nationalism is (too) often perceived in England: