If the union is to survive: Jonathan Edwards' speech on devolution

The Houses of Parliament discussed the aftermath of the Scottish referendum this week. This is the speech Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards planned to make, had he been called. He calls for radical and creative thinking around the UK constitution.

Jonathan Edwards
15 October 2014

Jonathan Edwards

Diolch Mr Speaker, It’s a pleasure to speak in this debate and make a short contribution to what in my mind will be the dominating issue of the remainder of this parliament, and the next one.

Let no one be in any doubt that the relationship between what the Prime Minister calls the ‘family of nations’ is rapidly changing. The British State has been shaken to its very core by events in Scotland over recent months, and unless we move to a far looser union – less dominated by Westminster – then what I have termed many times, the ‘crisis in unionism’ will only grow.

Westminster is a broken system. Essentially we have three Westminster parties that have morphed into one as a result of decades of political triangulation. Parties which are completely subservient to the interests of the economic elite and in particular the financial overlords of the City of London. Political parties that offer the same political prognosis and prescription. As the Independent reported over the weekend, you couldn’t put a tracer paper between the Westminster parties.

In England the response has been increasing support for an insurgent political party – which ironically only offers more Westminster, more privatisation, more austerity and more neo liberalism.

In Wales and Scotland, people are increasingly aware that the way to secure a different political direction is not to change the colour of the government down here in London – but rather empower their own national democratic political institutions.

During the referendum I campaigned in Glasgow, in some of the poorest communities in the UK where the life expectancy of males is in the mid-fifties. It was one of the most powerful political experiences of my life, a genuine political awakening where individuals who had long given up hope in democracy saw a Yes vote as an opportunity to create a better future based on social justice. Those experiences will be an inspiration to me for the remainder of my days.

The contrast with the No campaign couldn’t be any clearer. A campaign which was self-proclaimed as ‘Project Fear’ was a disgrace to democracy, especially the deliberate targeting of older voters. In failing to win based on a positive case for the Union, we will undoubtedly have another independence referendum in Scotland – which means the Westminster parties if they are to preserve the Union need to wake up and introduce genuine reform.

The No campaign prevailed if the polls are to be believed as a result of a last minute Vow of devolution max to the people of Scotland if they voted No. Within seconds of the polls closing Mr Speaker we saw the Westminster parties return to business as usual, as the tribalism which characterises politics in this place burst out into the open. The famous Vow barely made it past twenty five seconds of the polls closing, and the author of that promise, the Rt Hon Member for Kilkcaldy, now finds himself organising a petition against himself.

Despite my scepticism Mr Speaker I do believe there will be some progress over new powers from Scotland, although it is quite apparent that there is no joint vision by the Unionist parties – despite the manner in which the Vow was presented. I think we can be sure that new powers for Scotland will fall far shorter than the promised devolution max. This will be a huge disappointment to the 1.6 million people who voted Yes and especially to the hundreds of thousands, if the polls are to believed, who changed their minds at the last minute.

In Wales Mr Speaker the growth in the political confidence of the Welsh people continues at breakneck speed. An ICM poll within days of the result in Scotland indicated that the people of my country want far greater political control over their lives. I warned the UK Government during the proceedings of the Wales Bill in this place that it would be superseded by events in Scotland, and that is indeed the case.

The Wales Bill as drafted doesn’t even take Wales up to where Scotland is now, which means that the UK Government should support amendments to strengthen the Bill in the Lords.

There is no more powerful political message in Welsh politics than Equality with Scotland, and whatever new powers made available to our Celtic cousins should also be made available to Wales.

In the immediate aftermath of the Scottish result Mr Speaker, the First Minister of Wales called for Home Rule all round – although I would strongly suspect that his version of Home Rule is far less ambitious than mine! When asked on what powers he wants, he could only come up with a reserved powers model for our National Assembly – albeit important, hardly the sort of stuff to get excited about – and a million miles away from what most people would see as genuine Home Rule.

Plaid Cymru in contrast published a detailed position paper entitled ‘Bring Our Government Home – Proposals for Empowering Wales’, last month. The paper called for the current Wales Bill to include all the recommendations of the Silk Commission, rather than the cherry picking we saw by the UK Government – and crucially a second Wales Bill to mirror the powers which will be made available to Scotland. We have labelled this second bill a balancing bill, to end the practice of Wales playing catch up with Scotland.

In our view if we are to move towards genuine self-government for Wales then the following fields of policy should come under the control of the National Assembly for Wales. Justice, energy and resources, broadcasting, public sector pay and conditions, railways, jobcentre plus.

We are also calling for a radical overhaul of the discredited Barnett formula which has ill-served my country. This needs to be coupled with increased fiscal powers for the National Assembly, beyond the current Wales Bill. If Scotland is to get 100% income tax powers as recommended by the Tory Strathclyde Commission, then Wales should have the same powers.

Plaid Cymru’s ambition is to improve the Welsh economy so that as a country we can stand on our own two feet. This will not be achieved for as long as we are dependent upon fiscal transfers from London. Whereby Welsh taxes are collected by the Treasury and a share is sent back to fund Welsh public services. The Welsh Government needs to be incentivised to grow the Welsh economy, and this can only be achieved via fiscal responsibility.

Before I conclude I would like to comment briefly on the proposals for English Votes for English Laws in this House. As a point of principle I do not have a problem with what the UK Government are advancing pending two resolutions.

Firstly, the Welsh budget is determined by spending decisions on public services in England which are devolved via the discredited Barnett formula. I cannot see how English Votes for English Laws can be introduced until the Barnett formula is replaced, otherwise Welsh MPs will be barred from voting on measures which might impact on the Welsh budget. The same would apply to Scottish and Northern Irish MPs

Secondly, we will have to move to a symmetrical devolution settlement within the UK, otherwise there will be several tiers of MPs, creating chaos during votes in this place.

If the Union is to survive its crying out for someone with a bit of vision to bring forward proposals for a lasting settlement. Far be it for me to offer advice Mr Speaker, but it seems to me that an obvious solution would be to fully empower the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament, and the Northern Ireland Assembly. This place should be turned into an English Parliament with the Lords performing the role of a Confederal Parliament.

Mr Speaker, let’s be in doubt that the political ground is moving under the feet of Westminster. If the current British State is to survive to celebrate its centenary – considering the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921 – then the Westminster establishment has to acknowledge that the aspirations of the people of Wales and Scotland for far more powers for our national democratic institutions must be met.

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