Over the last 18 months, along with my colleague Alun Gibbard, I have been engrossed in the writing of a book, soon to be published, on the story of devolution and the nationhood of Wales from 1880 to 1980. The book will be called ‘Whose Wales?’. It trails the contributions of the political parties to that turbulent century.
So my mind is full of the details of the turmoil and divisions between and within the political parties over the future of Wales.
Essentially the end of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century was a period where the debate over the nationhood of Wales was very much to the fore. Then the period of the two world wars coupled with the economic depression of the 1920s and 30s inevitably took predominance and the debate was broadly, although not entirely, silenced for over 30 years.
After the Second World War under the determined campaigning of Jim Griffiths, Cledwyn Hughes and others inside the Labour Party for a Secretary of State and a Welsh Office, then followed by the Campaign for a Welsh Parliament in the mid-1950s devolution was once again back on the agenda. Then followed the establishment of a Secretary of State and a Welsh Office in 1964, which was a seminal moment. It firmly established that Wales was accepted after over 400 years as a distinct and separate arm of the administration of government. In fact one could say it recognised Wales as a land and nation – regions don’t have a Secretary of State and their own offices.
Within living memory, we have witnessed the turbulent decade after the Carmarthen, Caerphilly, and Rhondda West by-elections, the Kilbrandon Report in the early 70s, and the heated and emotive devolution referendum of 1979. That referendum was a resounding defeat by almost a 4:1 majority and it killed off any prospects of devolution in Wales for a generation, although, as I will show in another book out the first half of next year many of us endeavored to keep the debate on the agenda. The SDP/Liberal Alliance in Wales in the 1980s, who consistently argued for a federal structure to the governing of the UK in a period when the other parties had fallen silent.
A commitment to the creation of a Welsh Assembly with executive powers was again put into the Labour Party manifesto for the 1992 General Election.
There then followed a new momentum into the whole debate coming from the Scottish Constitutional Convention and devolution soon came back centre stage. Eventually, it all led to the 1997 referendum and this time, without a 40% threshold as there’d been in 1997, the vote for a Welsh Assembly went through on the filmiest of majorities with 50.3% voting yes.
We tend to forget the March 3, 2011, referendum in Wales on whether the Welsh Assembly should have full law-making powers in the twenty subject areas where it had jurisdiction. Overall, 63.49% voted ‘yes’, and 36.51% voted ‘no’. The First Minister Carwyn Jones said: “Today an old nation came of age.”
Indeed at the end of 2013, he went further and said the current constitutional arrangements were no longer functioning and the UK must continue down the road to becoming a federal nation in 2014. He has repeated that call for a federal solution several times since.
Of course, the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016 transformed the nature of the debate over the governance of the UK. Indeed an enormous bibliography has been built up on the subject as witness in the Facebook page of #WalesNationalConversation (@SgwrsCenedl on Twitter). People like Dr. John Ball, Owen Donovan, David Melding MS, Glyndwr C Jones, and many others have contributed to ongoing conversation over the years.
It is also fair to say that under the leadership of Adam Price, Plaid Cymru has emerged from a long period of silence, essentially twenty years, over the future governance of Wales. His regular call for independence has become considerably more heightened.
So in 2020, having left the European Union, the future of the UK Union is increasingly coming centre stage. It is clear that it is beginning to occupy the minds of the political parties and not just the nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales. Indeed there is developing a growing debate in England as to the nature of that country’s future governance
The introduction of the Internal Market Bill has further heightened the debate and nowhere more so than within the Parliaments of the devolved nations. In essence, the future of the devolved settlement after twenty years is in question.
Here in Wales, a succession of Labour figures have raised their concerns and serious worries.
The First Minister has called the bill an‘’ an enormous power grab – undermining powers that have belonged to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for over 20 years … and that it will do more to hasten the break-up of the Union than anything else since devolution began’’.
Very recently, Jeremy Miles, the Welsh Government Brexit minister said that the Internal Market bill is “an attack on democracy” which will “sacrifice the future of the union by stealing powers from devolved administrations”. He then goes on to state that imposing a new UK internal market after the end of the Brexit transition period will “accelerate the break-up of the Union”.
So, what needs to happen?
Well, in the first instance, the endless speeches, articles and various campaigns have to be augmented by concrete action, coupled with a meeting of minds on the way ahead. We all know that the political parties are divided, and yes there are internal divisions as well. It is well understood that there are differing opinions over whether the future lies in devo-max, federalism, confederalism, independence within the EU, or any other option. No more needs to be said on that subject at present and in any case, it’s a distraction given the situation Wales faces.
This meeting of minds needs to understand that choices between nationalism, socialism, liberalism or anything else is not the central issue – it’s all about the future governance and the nationhood of Wales.
To my mind, in this crucial period, the Welsh Parliament needs to clearly state that yes it is right and proper that the people of Wales should have a say over its future and just as what’s going on in Scotland it should prepare draft legislation to that effect.
Adam Price makes the point very well:
“We are not asking the Senedd to support independence today, but asking the Senedd to support the principle that the people of Wales should decide,”
The Welsh Government needs to establish a Wales Constitution Convention of people from all parties and none, linked to regional Peoples Assemblies. Personally, I and several others have been advocating all this since 2016.
All this is necessary so that Boris Johnson’s government and Westminster gets a clear message that Wales means business and will not be brushed aside. Words and platitudes do not measure up to the dangers that face us now.
It would be apposite if the message is heard on this day of all days – Owain Glyndwr Day.