The question raised by the First Minister of Scotland on the proposed referendum, ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ has changed the politics of the United Kingdom (UK) forever. The advantage of asking the question is that it has given the clever cabinet of my old friend Alex Salmond an opportunity to define its meaning; as well as the meaning of the second possible question about so called ‘devo max’ a kind of federal equality in the UK of ‘Great Britain and about a half of Northern Ireland’ (as Gwyn Alf Williams used to describe it.).
We must see what the response has been in Wales, without trying to avoid the statistics in the latest ITV Wales/YouGov. Opinion poll. When a sample of a thousand people was asked, ‘how should Wales should be governed in a UK without Scotland?’ 32% replied that Welsh Government and the National Assembly should have more powers. 10% wanted to see Wales as a country ‘independent of the United Kingdom’. 40% of Conservative supporters wanted to take advantage of potential change in Scotland to eradicate devolution completely by abolishing the Assembly. A clear warning to too many who are willing to co-operate as a kind of joint-opposition in the current assembly, let alone in government!
The most important statistic according to some media is that only a third (33%), a minority of Plaid Cymru voters, wanted to see Wales as an ‘independent’ country following any change in Scotland. Nothing new here. It is similar to the statistics in Professors Roger Scully and Richard Wyn Jones’ substantial studies of political opinion in Wales on ‘devolution’, including those commissioned by the National Assembly in 2008 before the referendum. It must therefore be assumed that this is the considered view of the majority of Plaid Cymru voters. So the most important constitutional question for the next Plaid Cymru leader is how public opinion in Wales, including Plaid voters, can shift towards public opinion in Scotland. As someone who spent years of apprenticeship developing an understanding Wales’s constitution, I relish this opportunity.
I am confident that this is possible if the leadership offered is honest, intelligent, willing to listen to people and electable. In 1999 when I was elected by my Colleagues as Presiding Officer of the National Assembly, I immediately saw that the body was not sustainable as it stood, a mishmash of assembly and government with one body of civil servants running both. Law-making powers were less than those of a Minister in the old Welsh Office. We set out to prove to the people of Wales day in day out that this just wasn’t good enough.
PLAYING AN INTELLIGENT GAME
When we look back today it is important to realise how much has already been won. And the biggest victory came in a referendum when the Leader of Plaid Cymru was Deputy Prime Minister with the Welsh Labour Leader in the One Wales Government. As developments in Scotland cause unintelligent questions to be asked on screens and in tea rooms across the UK the next few years will offer the best chance in the history of Wales to win yet more practical autonomy up to independence in the European Union (EU) if we really want it. This will not come about by shouting ‘independence’ on the touchline, but by playing an intelligentgameacross the field. We must ensure that we take advantage of every opportunity to do so. And I do believe that the full understanding of constitutional affairs in this kingdom which I have developed over the years would be a huge advantage for me as Plaid leader.
The most important thing that I have learnt over the years is that outreach for new support and a search for common ground is the way to get things done. Not by repeating clichés targeted mainly at pleasing core supporters – despite the temptation to do so in any internal election. I am determined to see the constitutional future of Wales having the attention it deserves over the next few years. And I am equally determined to raise the level of public debate on the subject. As I have already said in the Senedd I welcome First Minister Carwyn Jones’s call for a ‘Convention’ or,perhaps a Summit, on the relationship between the countries of the UK, not more appointed committees reporting only to the UK Government.
On my occasional visits to Monday questions at Westminster I enjoy the game of viewing the response of the parliamentary establishment to events in Scotland. It is remarkable how limited their understanding is of the constitutional affairs of their own state. The funniest example was
Chancellor George Osborne’s suggestion that an independent Scotland would require ‘permission’ from the Treasury in London to continue using the £ sterling. A bit like Peter Hain MP’s argument that Scotland would have to renegotiate its current membership of the European Union (EU) as if it were acceding to membership for the first time. They had to retract these words pretty quickly of course. By trying to present independence as a simplistic, rigid and irreversible option all the UK unionist establishment shows is its lack of insight and understanding of international affairs.
If I was based in Scotland just now, as I was at the beginning of the nineties at the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs in St Andrews University, it goes without saying that I would be with Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon and the rest of the SNP Cabinet one hundred per cent in their efforts to win as much powers as possible for the people of Scotland. Itis also quite obvious that their grasp of the UK constitution is much better than that of the UK British establishment down there in London! By having to explain what the question on the ballot paper ‘whether Scotland should be an independent country’, means exactly, their supporters will also have to start defining the exact nature of the state they want to see in Scotland.
If they keep the pound– as it is quite reasonable and pragmatic for them to do of course – it does mean the Bank of England will be setting interest rates, a key power in managing any economy. If Scotlandwanted a say in Bank of England decisions, they that would have to complying with tight borrowing rules. An equally painstaking job for the SNP Cabinet will be to define the exact meaning of that new term in our vocabulary – ‘devo max’. It is obliviously a flexible term, but I would simply define it as winning the maximum power for Scotland and its people. I know that Alex Salmond and his advisors are working just as hard behind the scenes to gain the support of thoughtful members of other parties for this choice, in addition to publicising the virtues of being an independent country.
WALES IS NOT SCOTLAND!
Any cursory student is bound to notice quickly the difference between thehistory, culture and the national life of that we sometimes misleadingly refer to a ‘Celtic countries’! If it were a tactic amongst some in Scottish politics, and I do not allege that this is the case, to argue for being an independent country to achieve some form or other of ‘devo max’ it does not follow that such a strategy would work in Wales. As we have seen, the support in Wales for what is called independence is less than a third of what it is in Scotland. It would be disparaging for us to see this as some sort of national shame and disgrace. It would be much more constructive to develop an understanding of the historical and economic reasons for it. To note one obvious thing, the over dependenceof theWelsh economy on the public sector is a key factor.
Certainly a small section among Plaid Cymru members would gain some kind of spiritual comfort from hearing the same nationalistic clichés constantly preached. I am the son of a Presbyterian Minister, though now a member of the Church in Wales, and throughout my life all I have constantly heard from pulpits is the emphasis on works. That is why I welcome the warning in the report ‘Moving Forward’, that ‘Plaid should be careful not to appear as if it is only interested in constitutional matters’. We must also understand that there would so pretty clear implications to putting forward independence as the main item of all our political activities. Would Plaid therefore give up any attempts to argue for a fairer formulathan Barnett formula for the distribution of state resources to Wales? Or putting sustainable development at the heart of the work of Welsh Government, the life of the country, the continent and the world?
I would argue fervently that the priority therefore is to achieve the support of public opinion in Wales to strengthen our political institutions so as to protect and promote the interests of the people of Wales, sodeveloping sustainably the life of our part of the world. I believe ‘Moving Forward’ is right to say “Plaid Cymru needs to map in more detail the constitutional steps which are desirable in their view.” I also agree with proposed steps towards the aims of establishing a specific Welsh jurisdiction, the devolution of policing powers and transfer of functions for fields such as borrowing, taxation, broadcasting and energy, and implementing all the recommendations of the Richard commission which reported to Welsh Government, moving from a model of ‘power devolved’ to ‘powers retained’ on the Scottish model and the Richard Commission recommendations.
I would add the need to abolish the ‘semi colonial’ job of Secretary of State, and support devolution to the English Parliament, moving towards equality in the UK between countries. The report also suggests setting the degrees of support for such objectives, in addition to support for Plaid, as indicators of success. While I fully agree with this, I but would go one step further – the most important criterion must be the degree of success in achieving these objectives.
ONLY IN EUROPE IS INDEPENDENCE POSSIBLE
Sustainable development is the new independence for the 21st century since it draws us out of every environmental and economic dependency to inter-dependence. That was the message of ‘One Wales: One Planet’. That is why I am also determined to see Plaid nurture a broader insight in terms of its attitude to Europe and the European Union (EU). We must take much more notice of developments on mainland Europe than in recent years. Talk of any long term aims is meaningless unless it is firmly placed in a wider context. Repeating clichés about ‘independence’ is useless unless we define exactly what powers Wales should have. Clear insight is necessary from the standpoint of which decisions should be taken by individual states and which ones on a European Union level.
In a brilliant essay, ‘England Wales and Europe’ Saunders Lewis argued that “bringing political and economic unity to Europe is one of the first requirements of our century”. Nearly a century later, we can celebrate how far ahead of their time our party’s founders were. Words such as these, and the emphasis by the early leaders on the interdependence of nations, offer such an enlightened contrast to those of David Cameron and the anti-European Unionists in the Conservative Party and the insular press with their UKIP-ist idea of sovereignty. As a party we should be in the forefront of pouring scorn on such narrow state nationalism, alwaysavoiding the temptation to use such language ourselves. If we seriously want to see the disappearance of the UK as an old post-imperial state with the rest of them out the life of Europe then common sense tells us how more difficult it would be to achieve that if we distance ourselves from the process of political unity on mainland Europe. It is all important that we recognise the limitations of nation states as appropriate forms of government and leave well behind such 20th century ideas as sovereignty.
I am determined to see Plaid rise to the challenge of adapting to the needs of a new age, remaining true to some of the most important values which belong to us as an historical party. If I am elected, I do not commit myselfto preach what members of Plaid want to hear every time. I am committed to use all my experience in outreach for new support to ensure as much power as possible in the present time, not in some fantasy future over the horizon, for Wales and her people.
Dafydd Elis-Thomas, February 2012