Last October at the Plaid Cymru – The Party of Wales Annual Conference in Aberystwyth I made a key note speech in which I claimed that we were living in the age of political climate change. The Scottish independence referendum represents a watershed moment from which there can be no return to the old ways of doing things. The tectonic plates of the British State are moving even if the Westminster elite are slow to react, and even if they are sufficiently aware to notice what is going on. In 2011, the people of Wales overwhelmingly voted in favour of empowering Welsh national political institutions with full and complete law making powers over devolved fields. Every single county, apart from Monmouthshire (which voted No by a narrow margin), voted Yes. It was a game changer in Welsh politics which left devolution-sceptics - those that want to preserve the centralised power of Westminster - shell shocked.
However, one of the biggest drivers for change has come from Scotland. The stunning SNP victory in the elections for the Scottish Parliament, also in 2011, in one fell swoop removed the cynical Westminster parties’ veto which had previously denied the people of Scotland a vote on their own future. The British establishment was forced into conceding a referendum as it had been beaten at its own game, despite its best attempt to put every conceivable obstruction in the way. At the time I said that the fact that the independence referendum was going to happen would change everything, regardless of the result.
For the first time those seeking to preserve the Union and Westminster power would have to justify why it should continue. I think it’s fair to say that, considering how the polls have narrowed during the course of the referendum, the No campaign has been a complete disaster. The first major strategic mistake was limiting the referendum question to a Yes or No vote. The Prime Minister should have agreed to a third question on Devolution Max which had stratospheric approval ratings at the time. The Union would be safe for the sake of swallowing some pride. However, hubris and an arrogant ‘how could they possibly want to do things differently?’ mentality prevailed instead.
A ‘Project Fear’ strategy by the No campaign which has wedded together Tories and Labour in an unholy alliance (in some cases, relished by Labour figures) has enabled the Yes campaign to put forward a positive counter narrative which is far more appealing to voters. The Yes campaign have been able to build a vision around a more just, equitable, and prosperous society, capturing the hopes and aspirations of the people of Scotland. Labour, in pledging to match Tory spending plans should they form the next UK Government, and their ‘Tory light’ political strategy, have played into the hands of the Yes campaign. Westminster can’t offer an alternative from austerity, neo-liberalism and privatisation. The only option for change and a better future is independence.
Central to the growing aspirations of the people of Scotland and Wales has been the growing individual and geographical wealth inequalities within the UK. Nine of the ten poorest regions in Northern Europe are in the UK. Also the UK is home to the richest – Inner London. This inequality is profound. The Westminster parties are in complete subservience to the financial sector in London, and economic policy seems to be based on inflating house prices and consumer debt regardless of who is in government. Despite the mayhem caused by the financial crash, what we have seen since 2008 is a return to business as usual. It’s incredible that all three Westminster parties are signed up to a plan by the new Governor of the Bank of England to inflate banking assets to nine times the size of the UK economy. (They were 550% at the time of the crash.) Despite heady promises of geographical and sectoral economic rebalancing, unsurprisingly there has been little progress.
Westminster hasn’t worked for Wales, Scotland, and English regions outside the South East for a long time. It is little surprise that in the case of Scotland and Wales the people of our countries now look to our own national democratic institutions for salvation.
Regardless of the overall referendum result, seismic change is upon us. In the event of a Yes vote the British State will cease to exist in its current format. 93 years after the creation of the Irish Free State, another constituent part would have left the British State. Considering the growing clamour in Wales, Northern Ireland, Cornwall, and indeed the English regions for greater political control, Westminster will have to relinquish power.
Even in the event of a No vote the British State will have to radically decentralise power if it is to remain fit for purpose for the future and survive.
Plaid Cymru Leader, Leanne Wood, was right to recently state in a speech in London that the age of devolution is coming to an end, and that the age of self-government for Wales is about to begin. Whilst independence continues as our long-term aim, the remaining Union should be based on Confederal principles no matter what the result of the September referendum is. In other words, it should be a matter for the people of Wales to determine what powers we choose to share. In this regard, instead of making the case for what powers we want devolved – our starting point should be what powers should remain in Westminster. It seems to me that the most obvious powers which should remain reserved to Westminster for the time being are Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development and elements of Social Protection. Monetary policy would of course remain under the responsibility of the Bank of England – or the Sterling Central Bank as it should be renamed. The Bank would also have to be radically restructured in terms of its governance and how it formulates policy to better reflect the needs of the wider economies of the nations and regions of any remaining looser and realigned Union.
There will need to be a debate around fiscal powers and funding. However, if we are to have any hope of turning around the Welsh economy we must have the fullest range of job-creating powers coupled with complete control over our natural resources. The current Wales Bill offers pitiful fiscal and borrowing-for-investment powers which will allow little scope for a Welsh Government to intervene in our economy. Following the 18th of September the UK Government should use the Wales Bill currently still going through Parliament to bring forward a much more radical proposal based on genuine, full, and comprehensive Home Rule for Wales.