Wednesday 8 February 2012

A new political direction: independence, by Leanne Wood

"Real independence is a time of new and active creation: people sure enough of themselves to discard their baggage; knowing the past is past, as shaping history, but with a new confident sense of the present and the future, where the decisive meanings and values will be made."
Raymond Williams, 1975

In the space of three short years, the political context in Wales and the world has changed beyond recognition. The 2008 banking crisis should have undermined and resulted in the rejection of capitalism and many of its basic economic and political assumptions. Austerity programmes and high unemployment levels are putting great strain on people not just in Wales, but throughout other parts of the world as are the impacts of energy price shocks and climate change. All countries in the European Union face economic uncertainty, with many, large and small, in deep economic crisis. The future of the whole EU project is now under threatIf the tectonic plates of capitalism are showing signs of stress, then closer to home, the recent elections in Scotland caused a tremor in the British state. The aftershocks from events in the Eurozone and Britain’s response are likely to be felt for some time to come. Questions over whether Wales has the powers to make laws within a limited range of devolved policy areas have been decisively answered by the referendum last March. The next steps for a Wales that rejected the Tory/Lib Dem cuts programme that is now hitting us disproportionately, are yet to be determined.

As Plaid Cymru undertakes an internal review and starts the process of electing a new leader to take the party into its new phase, now is a good time to give some consideration as to how we respond to these new contexts. How can we ensure that the philosophy and values which underpin Plaid Cymru’s political outlook contribute to the building of an economically viable post-crash, post-Britain Wales? Keeping our heads down and continuing to speak the language of managerialism in a time of crisis is simply not an option.

For independence

It’s clear from discussions at the recent Plaid Cymru conference that developments in Scotland have spurred Plaid Cymru’s membership into thinking about the possibilities for Wales. What had seemed almost impossible before last May now seems possible, even tangible. The ‘what are we for?’ question that was asked following the successful ‘Yes’ vote last March has been answered: Plaid Cymru has never, and would never, accept a situation where we were deemed second rate to Scotland. The Welsh people know that our sense of national identity is equal to that of our Scottish and English sisters and brothers. Plaid Cymru is for Welsh independence.

However Wales is not Scotland. While there is much Plaid Cymru can learn from the SNP there are other parties within the European Free Alliance (EFA) group which whom we should learn and deepen links. The Bloque Nacionalista Galego (BNG) from Galicia or the PNC (Corsica) or UDB (Brittany) are more akin to Wales and to Plaid in terms of their socio-economic, linguistic and political statuses and ambitions as well as their economic outlook. All three are green and on the left end of the political spectrum – near to where Wales and Plaid are.

The ‘can we afford it’ question

Most of us who want independence for Wales would accept that the weak state of the Welsh economy means that we would struggle to afford the current Welsh welfare bill. A major contributor to this weakness is the high numbers of people dependent on state benefits. There are historic and political reasons for this. While Plaid Cymru would have no truck with blaming unemployed people for unemployment, neither would we seek to punish those who are dependent on state benefits, as the British unionist parties have. The high numbers of people dependent on welfare benefits has to be tackled in any serious attempt to turn around the Welsh economy. This could be done by providing support and incentives for people to form their own job-creating enterprises building Wales from the community up, using measures similar to those proposed in the ‘Greenprint’ document.’

Constitutional debates are unlikely to capture the popular imagination unless they are rooted in real-life politics. The biggest question facing most people in Wales today is that of their own and their family’s economic security. In a relatively short period of time, safe jobs have become unsafe. Public sector cuts will hit harder in Wales where the public sector makes up a larger proportion of the economy than other parts of the British state. The market has been failing to provide jobs in some parts of Wales since the 1980s and before, so the chances of the private sector filling the gaps left by the public sector during what in Wales is a deep recession, are slim. Social problems widely associated with a lack of or low-quality employment threaten to widen and deepen unless bold steps are taken to reverse the economic decline of our country. Plaid Cymru must give priority to strategies which can deliver full employment.

According to the sociologist Michael Hechter, Wales’s economic development is typical of other colonial/extractive economies like those in Latin America: economies that were built to facilitate the easy export out of any valuable natural resources. With an economic infrastructure built to ensure the transportation-out of the country’s major export product, coal, Wales remains hampered to this day by an internal transport system where all lines of communication lead to “the imperial capital or to the ports”. This infrastructure, as well as Wales’s ‘peripheral’ status, contributes to an inevitable in-built structural weakness in the Welsh economy. Leopold Kohr, that prophet of our current crisis, argued that the drain towards the centre cannot be “stopped by benevolently infusing into the periphery invigorating shots of new industry”. Kohr’s work explains the failure of EU convergence funds as well as other previous failed attempts to boost the Welsh economy. Wales’s economy has design faults that cannot be rectified by tinkering. Those design faults can only be corrected when the Welsh people, in all their diversity, are in a position to fundamentally reshape their economic infrastructure in a way that serves their needs and when they are no longer clinging on the peripheral edge of a vastly unequal British state. Welsh economic outcomes, as compared with those in other parts of the British state or the EU, whatever measure is used, can only be improved and equalised via independence. Independence is the vehicle for boosting an economy that has been stagnating for the best part of a century.

Jobs, jobs, jobs …

In the meantime, the deepening economic crisis demands solutions to combat unemployment now. A ‘Building Wales’ jobs plan which sought to provide everyone who can work with a job helping to re-build the Welsh economic infrastructure in a way which would benefit people living in Wales would be assisted if the Welsh government had the ability to vary the benefits as well as the tax rules, giving concrete reasons for the devolution of such powers.

Leopold Kohr in his book ‘Is Wales Viable’ (1971) advocates the development of an internal or ‘home’ market, where the money earned in Wales is spent in Wales, stimulating local economic activity which would in turn create jobs. A ‘small is beautiful’ approach, as advocated by Kohr, would support small local enterprises over multi-nationals. Financial and practical support to bring new markets to a multitude of small firms should aim for them to take on one or two trainees or new workers to build capacity so they could tender for local public goods or services contracts. The report by Adam Price and Kevin Morgan (The Collective Entrepreneur, 2011) on public procurement and social enterprise could help to inform this work.

Creatively marketed, a Welsh ‘brand’ of locally-produced,fair-trade/ co-operative products could become recognised around the world as being wholesome and natural. Food, the creative industries, green technology and end-product manufacturing for niche markets are sectors which, with support, could be expanded for both internal consumption and export.

Global battles over oil-control and predictions of soon-to-hit peak oil are not going away. If the Welsh economy is to be developed sustainably, in a way which measures up to our party’s commitment to contribute to world efforts to combat climate change, our economic plan has to place sustainable development at the centre of all policies and include measures that will ensure Wales’s natural resources are utilised for the transition to an economy not dependent on fossil fuels. As they have in Denmark, people in Wales must have full control and ownership of the natural resources if money leakage out of Wales is to be plugged. The work involved and the profits made, should, where possible, be kept local. Energy security must be considered, though the good news is that Wales is already self-sufficient in electricity – we export our surplus electricity and water so we have much to build on.

Investment in and the encouragement of worker-owned co-operatives, as promoted by DJ and Noelle Davies in the 1930s and 1940s, linked in with learning institutions could help to build the skills capacity to ensure the availability of local labour. Skilled workers in the public sector could be given the option of reduced working hours to contribute to such enterprises. A Davies/Kohr inspired economic plan to move away from a fossil fuel economy and develop an internal market to create demand for local work, could begin with a home insulation programme which prioritised areas of high fuel poverty thus reducing excess fuel-related winter deaths amongst older people, and supporting small local businesses and co-operatives to undertake that work. This would create jobs and help meet Wales’ commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2020 and to work towards One Planet Wales – living within our resource means, using only our fair share of the world’s global natural resources. It would also help to build up resilience to future food and energy price shocks.

Practical advice could be obtained by linking up with and learning lessons from the Danes and the Basques. The Danish island Samsø has become 100% self-sufficient in renewable electricity and the Mondragon manufacturing co-operative network in the Basque Country, which was set up in the 1950s as a co-operative training college, but expanded into manufacturing during the economic difficulties which caused high unemployment there during the 1980s, now employs thousands. Study visits to Samsø and Mondragon could inform and even inspire Plaid Cymru members to involve themselves in the setting up and running of such co-operatives. Such activity should be encouraged so that party members can in a very practical way contribute to the strengthening of the Welsh economy.

Equalising outcomes

Youth unemployment rates in some places are very high. Competition to get an education or training place, let alone a job, sees long-term youth unemployment threatening to add to the social problems that have been taking root over the decades since the end of mass Welsh heavy industry. Affordable housing is a growing problem for young people too. Any attempts to build the Welsh economy must provide alternative solutions for the people and places where the market has failed: Plaid Cymru’s vision for an independent Wales has to include an explicit aim to equalise economic outcomes for all parts of, as well as for the individuals living and working within Wales.

Despite eleven years of cash injections from the EU, the GDP of West Wales and the Valleys has declined from 76% of the EU average in 2000 to 71% now. Arguably, without those funds, the position would be worse. GDP is a blunt measure unable to take account of inequalities within a given area. Planning for continued economic growth on traditional measures is unsustainable, however, there are plenty of other measures which show that Welsh economic activity and incomes are in decline in relation to other EU countries and regions. Arguments for independence must address Wales’s relative economic position.

An economic plan which pays particular attention to disproportionately affected groups as well as geographic areas within Wales is vital if we are to avoid allowing the continuation of an economy which overheats at the centre to the detriment of the periphery. Unless steps are taken to rebalance the situation, we risk creating an economic structure in Wales which apes that of the British state: one which sees the economies in the peripheral land on which we live – Wales (as well as the other countries and regions) as unimportant in comparison to the overheating economy of London and the south east. Plaid Cymru’s vision has to include an explicit aim to equalise economic outcomes for all parts of, as well as for the individuals living and working within, Wales.

Recently unveiled plans to set up enterprise zones do not set out to equalise outcomes throughout Wales. ‘Real’ enterprise zones would decentralise, for example, promoting the specialisation of particular sectors in geographic ‘centres of excellence’, away from the economically successful M4 and A55 corridors, allowing for the development of new Welsh ‘capitals’. Our west coast is one of Wales’ greatest assets and it is under-utilised. Why not seek to explicity aim to stimulate Wales’ peripheral areas by developing ‘added value’ niche manufacturing sectors in the new ‘capitals’ – Aberystwyth, Swansea, Bangor, Newport, Wrecsam and in the valleys and using Holyhead, Fishguard and Milford Haven as centres for improving links with Ireland & beyond for export?

Progressive Wales

By prioritising the creation of a detailed job-creation programme designed to build a sustainable Wales in a way which aimed to equalise economic outcomes, Plaid Cymru could project a vision for a future which fits with the traditions and history of Wales and the long term thinking of Plaid Cymru.

To counter the hyper-competitive, imperial/militaristic, climate-change-ignoring and privatising government over the border, Plaid Cymru’s economic vision for Wales should be for a thriving decentralised economy where people’s participation in local economic decision making is maximised. Our vision for Wales includes active, resilient communities which are backed up by a solid public service and welfare infrastructure in a political culture that insists that no-one is left behind. Our jobs plan could project a future Wales which takes a more co-operative, anti-militaristic, anti-imperial, sustainable and pro-public services economic approach which would show how an independent Wales would be politically different and better for people in Wales, and for future generations, more progressive and in line with our politics than what middle-England keeps voting for, regardless of the rosette colour. The politics on show from all mainstream parties at the British state level does not exhibit the same values as those represented by the parties at a Welsh level, and devolution has provided a political space for these different, alternative political meanings and values to be aired and extended.

Conceding nothing to the right-wing propaganda which has conned many people into supporting measures which will ensure that the worst off in society pay the price for the 2008 crisis, Plaid Cymru should continue to oppose the British state’s austerity programme, designed by a group of self-serving millionaires, which is conducting an unprecedented attack on benefits, while providing no hope of jobs. Advocating a jobs programme aimed at reducing inequalities within Wales and between Wales and other comparable countries would demonstrate how these socialist values still exist here, and how they can be embodied into policies which can offer a concrete alternative to enforced austerity. Ed Miliband may dream of moving the centre ground to the left, but in Wales we’re already there. Tied to the apron strings of London, the Labour Party is unable to take advantage of the Welsh context. Plaid Cymru is the only party who can develop a truly alternative vision for Wales, based on our fundamental principles as a people, and ‘no mean people’ as Gwyn Alf reminded us.

Scotland is on the road to freedom because a strong SNP government is leading the way, providing assurances and projecting a confidence which has enabled people to believe that their country can stand on its’ own two feet economically. Scottish support for independence is growing. This has been achieved despite, or even arguably because of the vastly changed economic context. It must be the case that most people in Scotland now see that their country will be better off when it is released from the British union.

Winning trust

Like the SNP, Plaid must become the biggest party in the Senedd. To do that Plaid Cymru must win people’s trust with a clear and realistic plan to show how the Welsh economy can be a success, which a majority of people in a Welsh election are prepared to support. We will not get there unless we are able to confidently and competently answer the question, ‘can Wales afford independence?’

Plaid Cymru representatives at all levels including party activists at community council and street level all have a part to play in building the local coalitions needed to turn our jobs plan nto a reality. Such activity in our communities would concretely demonstrate that we are able to afford and achieve what Raymond Williams called ‘real’ independence, where our overall society and social relations would improve as inequalities reduced. The case for an independent Wales is a case for a participatory democracy of a kind which does not currently exist in the UK. The case for independence has been mapped out by writers and artists, some of whom have been mentioned here, but it is also a case that can only be won with economic arguments.

We must rise to that challenge.

Leanne Wood, January 2012

Twitter: @leannewood

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