Tuesday, 15 July 2014

What of Wales?

Leanne Wood AM / AC putting Wales at the heart of the constitutional debate in Britain.

Speech given by Leanne Wood AM at UCL, June 11th 2014.

I’m delighted to have this opportunity to address you this evening in what is a momentous year.

The headline theme for my lecture this evening is ‘What of Wales? Putting Wales at the heart of the constitutional debate in Britain.’

It is perhaps symptomatic of Wales’ historic standing as a constitutional entity that debates of this nature usually occur in the context of events in another part of the UK.

The very fact that we have to ask ‘What of Wales?’ highlights the need for Wales to insist on being a participant in wider constitutional matters rather than languishing as it has done – too often - as a spectator.

This evening I will be addressing three broad themes that I believe are essential for Wales to find and express its voice as a nation – a participant nation.

It was Aneurin Bevan who said ‘this is my truth, tell me yours’ and so here’s my truth.

Firstly, I will outline the case for a comprehensive constitutional framework that would provide for Wales the basis to function as a democracy, initially, within the context of the British State, but in time as an independent country.

Secondly, I will discuss my vision for a renewed partnership between the nations of these islands, and how that could function.

And finally, having addressed the mechanics of an independent Wales, I will elaborate on why independence is desirable.

But before addressing each of those broad areas, I’d like to set out the current and more recent context to the constitutional debate under the process of devolution.

Last weekend marked the 15th anniversary of the convening of Wales’ first national legislature in several hundred years.

Indeed, the convening of our national assembly at that point was more significant than the powers – or lack of powers – bestowed upon it.

It was said that Wales could have voted itself out of existence had that tiny ‘yes’ vote in the 1997 referendum not materialised.

That the people of Wales were so tentative in that original referendum tells us a great deal about the historic psychology of Welsh nationhood.

That after several centuries without a distinct Welsh government and lacking many civic institutions, Welsh nationhood had found different outlets of expression.

Cultural and sporting; identity based without a significant element of civic nationhood such as a legislature or distinct legal system. 

Indeed, the fact that Welsh nationhood survived at all was a miracle.

But the absence, through the centuries, of Welsh statehood, has resulted in vulnerabilities in our national make-up.

As a constitutional entity, Wales has found itself trailing behind the other nations of these islands, often having to settle for well below ‘the going rate’ for powers over its own affairs.

That is evidenced today as the ‘devolution going rate’ set in Scotland is not being matched in pace by that offered by Unionist parties to Wales.

There is no logical reason for this difference in offering.

Such gulfs in offering have two consequences: one, even before new Welsh powers come into being, they are seen to be inadequate.

Secondly, such inadequacies lead to instant calls for further devolution which distract policy makers and others from the delivery of services and improvements in the lives of the people of Wales.

Indeed, the number of reports, commissions and inquiries into further devolution has enjoyed greater public prominence than almost any legislation passed by the National Assembly to date.

Within just three years of the National Assembly’s creation, the Richard Commission was convened by the Welsh Government to look at further powers for Wales.

Since then of course, we’ve had many others including most recently, the Silk Commission.

The fact that the Silk Commission was established by the current UK Government was a tacit recognition of the unsatisfactory state of devolution in Wales.

We want to see Wales flourish as a nation in every respect, including constitutionally.

We continue to hope that the UK Government will implement in full and without undue delay the recommendations of the Silk Commission.

Both the first and second reports of that Commission were unanimously supported by all commissioners and received widespread support across Wales.

Cherry-picking the two reports will only lead to unsatisfactory and inadequate dispensations.

The people of Wales deserve better than that. Devolution – it is said – is a process not an event.

I agree wholeheartedly that every nation’s constitutional process is one that develops over time.

But is it time for devolution as a process to end in respect of Wales and the other nations of the British State?

This is the basis for the first broad theme I want to address this evening; a new framework for Wales in the context of the UK that could be the basis for the next period of Wales’ journey as a constitutional entity. 

Devolution - which is essentially about power retained - must give way to self-government.

The difference between the two might appear at first to be semantic only, but it is far more profound than that.

Devolution is essentially characterised by Westminster deciding when and what powers to devolve to the National Assembly for Wales.

And as I have already said, such a system results often in inadequate outcomes for Wales, which are accentuated further by the greater powers afforded to other parts of the UK.

 We have – whilst not technically a powers reserved model – a model where Wales’ constitution is reserved entirely to Westminster.

This reflects the out-dated Westminster paradigm that Parliament is sovereign. The model of Welsh self-government I propose is the opposite.

I propose a model of Welsh self-government where the people of Wales themselves are sovereign.

This is nothing new in itself from Plaid Cymru; it has been a key principle of our politics since our inception.

But I want that principle to be applied to modern Wales – to how Wales is governed.

It is the people of Wales themselves who should decide what powers their government and national assembly should have, it is they who determine what powers to share or cede with other nations and parliaments.

I believe this point is particularly pertinent now in the context of their being a government in Westminster that comprises two parties who did not win a mandate from Wales.

Indeed, neither party, in their modern incarnations have ever won a majority of votes or seats at a General Election in Wales.

For the issue of the Welsh constitution to be in the almost exclusive hands of Westminster governments is an oddity that must be addressed, and in my view, it can only be addressed by devolution yielding to self-government.

In practical terms, the expression and the implementation of the sovereignty of the people should start and end with the people themselves.

There is a direct link between sovereignty and democracy.

To unlock this potential into reality would require a new arrangement between the governments of Wales and Westminster.

I believe precedent already exists for such agreement within the British State.

The Edinburgh agreement between the governments of Scotland and Westminster, implemented through an Order in Council provides that precedent.

That agreement created the constitutional basis for Scotland to hold its own referendum on whether or not to become and independent country, and it was secured because the people of Scotland, through electing an SNP government, were deemed to have provided that government with a mandate to hold such a referendum.

That mandate was recognised of course without the Scottish parliament or government technically having legal competence to do so.

That ability to recognise the will of the people and the democratic mandate of a government outside Westminster must be replicated in Wales.

And so this evening, I am able to announce that a Plaid Cymru government in 2016 would seek an agreement with the UK government to implement by Order in Council, the devolution of the Welsh constitution, including the right to hold binding referenda, to the National Assembly for Wales.

That will formally begin a new era of self-government, and with a Plaid Cymru Welsh Government that would result in a new, written constitution for the Welsh nation and a new relationship between Wales and the British State.

This relationship would be one of equality and partnership not of distrust and antagonism.

From that point, Wales would formally be freely associating with the UK government, and it will be the people of Wales themselves who will determine what powers to share with Westminster.

But I don’t want us as a country to miss out on an opportunity to develop a constitution and the basis for a new way of doing politics.

I do not recommend the convening of a new commission and I would be eager for the new process to be people-led, not politician-led.

Despite the turmoil at the time and the disappointing set-backs since, the way in which the people led the direction and writing of the new constitution of Iceland following the crash of 2008 was inspiring.

So Wales’ constitution should be written and led by the people of Wales.

A citizen-led constitution would help us reinvigorate the politics of Wales generally, it would put power back in the hands of the people rather than with a small elite and by coming together we could pool our collective intelligence to build not just the mechanics of government but the basis for a new nationhood.
As well as considering powers and competencies, I’d like the process to consider the kind of society we want to build and the kind of communities we want to live in.

In such constitutional circumstances, there would need to be formal mechanisms for cooperation between the governments at either end of the M4.

There should also be a renewal of arrangements between the nations of these islands as a whole.

This matter brings me to the second theme of this lecture; creating a new framework for cooperation in these islands.

On this matter, there are two concurrent threads that need to be addressed, firstly joint working and cooperation within and between the constituent parts of the British State for the duration of Wales’ membership of it and secondly, the relationships between the nations of these islands as a whole, whether or not they are members of the United Kingdom.

That all the nations of these islands agree and aspire to close cooperation on matters of mutual interest is very welcome and provides the basis for strengthened cooperation.

It is often a misconception – sometimes intentionally peddled by Unionists – that for those of us who support the creation of an independent Wales – that this is somehow at odds with the concept of cooperation with our nearest neighbours.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Welsh nationalism, with its roots firmly fixed in civic nationalism, sees Wales as part of a family of nations, not in competition but in collaboration with all others, including those in the British isles.

Indeed, former Plaid Cymru president Gwynfor Evans proposed what he called a Britannic Confederation.

We support the establishment of an independent Wales in order to join the international community, not to somehow retreat into an inward-looking isolationism.

Indeed, we are enthusiastic about cooperation within these islands.

The difference between us and Unionists on this point is that for them, the concept is tied and restricted to the existence of the British State.

This, in my view is an unnecessary limitation not only on Wales’ ability to realise its national potential, but it limits too the ability of our nations to work closely together in a spirit of partnership and equality.

As an initial step, a self-governing Wales as part of the UK would require a framework where issues of disagreement could be resolved and crucially where discussions can occur that relate to matters decided on Wales’ behalf at Westminster.

We have at present the Joint Ministerial Committee where ministers from the devolved governments can meet with UK ministers.

That committee underpins the relationship between the governments.

This was formalised in a Memorandum of Understanding. I would like to see the Joint Ministerial Committee reformed for the new self-governing Wales I propose.

Reformed so that it is responsive to the needs of Wales.

That would require a new Memorandum of Understanding.

As part of a new Memorandum I propose arrangements for accommodating dialogue on matters such as social protection, defence and foreign affairs.

This I believe is essential because social protection in particular has a significant impact on so many other areas of policy that to leave Wales without a voice would hinder the Welsh government’s ability to develop the Welsh economy and wider social policy.

Even if this understanding did not result in the transfer of responsibility for the administration of social protection to Wales – which incidentally – I believe it should, then alternative arrangements could be found for Wales in the event of unpalatable policies being pursued by Westminster.

Such an arrangement could have resulted in alternatives being sought in Wales to the dreaded bedroom tax.

It is perhaps one of the clearest examples of a government in Westminster – with no mandate from Wales – implementing a policy in direct conflict with the values of the people of Wales.

Transforming the JMC into a more purposeful council of ministers should not only be a forum of arbitration, it should be one of cooperating too.

I have spoken in the past of my desire to see Wales play a leading role when the UK next hosts the presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2017.

The renewed JMC could be the mechanism by which sharing the EU presidency in 2017 could be detailed, including agreement on pursuing the objectives of the then Welsh government in summit talks that would be part of a shared UK presidency between the constituent nations.

I want to make it clear that my reasons for seeking a shared EU presidency is not for symbolic or party political reasons.

There would be significant opportunities for Wales in sharing the presidency that would simply not be realised by any Westminster government, of any party political colour.

By sharing the UK’s presidency of the EU in 2017, a Welsh Government led by Plaid Cymru would seek a new social chapter for the EU.

If there is one great lesson to be learnt from the recent European elections, it is that politics in general, but the EU especially have become more distant from citizens and less responsive to people’s needs.

Indeed, it isn’t voters that have disengaged with the EU, it is the EU that has disengaged with people.

Since the financial crisis and its aftermath, securing the stability of the Eurozone and the liquidity of the financial sector have been at the forefront of the EU’s policy objectives.

But a Plaid Cymru Welsh Government would seek to use the opportunity of an EU Summit in Wales in 2017 for a new European Social Chapter.

The basis for this new social chapter could include eradicating unfair employment practices such as the abuse of zero-hours contracts, it could strengthen and build on measures that seek to combat the exploitation of workers – especially exploitation that leads to undercutting wages and a new social chapter could find Europe-wide agreement to tackle the growing and deeply concerning issue of youth unemployment.

Wales will never fully be able to express its outward-looking aspirations as part of the British State, but for the duration of our membership of the UK we should exploit the few opportunities we have to do so.

 Ultimately, Wales’ voice within these islands will be best expressed within the context of partnership and the foundations of that partnership already exist in the form of the British-Irish Council.

It is my hope to see Wales become a member of that council as an independent state, but one of the strengths of that organisation is that it includes all the nations of these islands regardless of their constitutional status.

There are currently two independent governments, three devolved governments and three Crown Dependencies participating.

As an umbrella organisation for co-operation, I believe the British-Irish Council could emerge as the primary body within these islands.

Part of its structure could involve facilitating bi- and multilateral arrangements between the nations on shared assets and shared institutions that will occur following the transition of the British State after September’s referendum.

Indeed, the Good Friday Agreement which established the British-Irish Council already provides a framework for agreements between two or more of its member governments.

It would mean for example, that in the future, those independent nations that share the pound as their currency, could formalise agreements as part of a wider British Isles context.

It could mean that the CTA – the Common Travel Area that guarantees freedom of travel within these islands could formally become a matter dealt with by the institutions of the British-Irish Council.

The emergence of the Council as the focal point for co-operation in these islands, even on matters in which not every single country is directly involved, would help us redefine our friendship with each other and would aid us in emulating our Nordic neighbours and their model of co-operation.

They have provided a comprehensive framework of partnership through independence that we in these islands should seek to replicate.

And as the British-Irish Council grows in stature and in responsibility there will be increased need for greater accountability and transparency.

It is my hope that in time a roving presidency could emerge as part of the Council’s work, with each of the eight governments having an opportunity to host and set the agenda for that body for a period of time, in a similar way to the presidency of the EU Council.

There will always be a shared bond and close relationship between the nations of these islands.

That bond will not be limited or even determined necessarily by the constitutional status of each nation.
That bond transcends constitutions and includes family ties, a single market and freedom of movement.

Even in the very difficult context that Ireland emerged from the United Kingdom as an independent country, the bond with that country was recognised in UK legislation.

The Ireland Act 1949 included a provision, aptly entitled ‘Republic of Ireland not a foreign country.’

It included an almost poetic passage – at least by legislative standards – that read as follows:

‘It is hereby declared that, notwithstanding that the Republic of Ireland is not part of His Majesty’s dominions, the Republic of Ireland is not a foreign country for the purposes of any law in force in any part of the United Kingdom…’

For a true partnership to thrive within these islands, equality must be its foundation.

That is why, ultimately for Wales to emerge as a partner in these islands and beyond, and for us to have the opportunity to forge our own future, the emergence of Wales from the shadows as an independent country is vital.

That Wales is a nation is beyond debate.

We have all the characteristics of a nation and over the past fifteen years, we’ve began to develop as a state.

But as well as treasuring the characteristics that make us a nation, we need also to face up to the obligations and responsibilities of nationhood too.

The pursuit of independence means seeking the tools to face and make difficult decisions and tough choices.

Independence is not an end in itself.

It is the beginning of a period of endless opportunity.

Above all, independence is normal.

Few countries on earth unconditionally cede direct domestic powers to another country.

Indeed, it is Wales’ current constitutional position that is exceptional.

That said, every country has its own national journey and no two national journeys are ever the same.

Earlier I outlined my vision for the process of devolution to give way to a new period of self-government.

Self-government that stems from the people and is determined by them.

I see that chapter in Wales’ development as being preceding a national debate in Wales on the country becoming an independent nation.

For too long, independence in the Welsh context has been treated as a pipe-dream as an aspiration so distant it has been seen as unrealistic and unworkable.

But this evening, I want to elevate the debate and I can reveal that Plaid Cymru will shortly be publishing plans to begin the debate on Wales’ future.

It will comprise the vision for self-government within the UK that I have already outlined and it will elaborate and map out how an independent Wales would function, the kind of social Wales a Plaid Cymru government would seek to build with the tools of independence.

My unswerving priority as leader of Plaid Cymru is to tackle the deep structural flaws in our country’s economy that have, and continue to hold us back.

We will be limited within the UK on what we can achieve.

One of the benefits of independence are the enhanced economic levers that a nation can utilise for the good of its citizens.

But within the United Kingdom, a Plaid Cymru government will to all it can for jobs and sustainable growth.

A buoyant economy is the basis upon which we can eradicate poverty and reduce inequality and build world class public services.

That is why independence is essential.

It is not about flags and anthems or any other symbols. 

It’s about the society that we want to live in.

The growing imbalance within the British State should be a renewed warning to us of the perils of continued centralisation of policy decisions and of the hegemony of elites in Westminster.

That centralisation accelerated with the intentional de-industrialisation of Wales and the reckless gamble of the entire UK economy on the roulette table of London’s financial service sector.

And be in no doubt to that an independent Wales is not for me a simple swapping of Westminster for Cardiff Bay.

It is about empowering our national institutions yes, but that empowerment must too result in empowering Wales’ communities – government by community as the great Ioan Bowen Ress put it.

Again, just as a Plaid Cymru Welsh Government in its first term will facilitate a people-led constitution for a self-governing Wales within the UK, so too will we facilitate a citizen-led process for an independent Wales.

The social and political carpenters and stone masons responsible for the construction of a new country should be those who will live and work within that structure.

Plaid Cymru will set out our proposals, our vision, in our forthcoming white paper but that document will form the starting point of the debate, it will not be the conclusion of our national conversation.

And our national conversation must begin.

Let’s start that conversation by recognising that Wales could be independent, in a similar fashion to the debate in Scotland where the debate is about whether or not Scotland should become independent.

Wales has all the raw ingredients for success as an independent member of the family of nations in these islands, Europe and the wider world.

We have an abundance of natural resources: we’re a net exporter of electricity, we’re home to the world’s second highest tidal range, we are leaders in fields such as marine sciences, we have a vibrant advanced manufacturing sector a world-class food and drinks sector and we’re among the most desirable tourist destinations on the planet.

Yes, there’s a lot more we could do, but we’ve certainly got what it takes.

Wales could be independent.

Wales should, in my view be independent because despite all that natural wealth, despite our historic position as an industrial powerhouse and despite the unquestionable ability of our people, we’re a part of one of the world’s most unequal, imbalanced and centralised states.

Whilst being a member of the world’s sixth largest economy, 79,000 people in Wales last year needed the support of a foodbank.

Whilst 2,700 City bankers having their financial rewards increased by a third last year a staggering 31 per cent of Welsh workers earned less than the living wage.

Whilst the income of the top 0.1 per cent of earners in the UK has grown at a far faster rate than the rest, a billion pounds was wiped out of the Welsh economy this year in social protection cuts.

Wales could be independent, because we are a nation and we have the basis for success.

Wales should be independent because we need the tools to build the fair, social Wales that won’t be built on our behalf by the British State.

A distinguishing feature of those of us who support independence from those who do not, is that we want to end dependency.

What political party or politician would not want his or her country to be in a position of such confidence where independence is at least seen as a viable option, even if it were decided not to take that option?

Why on earth would any individual, community or country aspire to a future of perpetual dependency?

Independence won’t occur today or tomorrow but for those politicians who say it should never happen, or ever be considered, I ask them why they are involved in Welsh public life in the first place?

Are they, in fact, admitting that they will fail to get our country to a point where it is accepted as a choice for the people of Wales to make? 

I began this evening by posing the question ‘What of Wales?’

And I also explained that the lecture this evening would – as Aneurin Bevan put it – be my truth.

As Plaid Cymru begins an exciting period in the coming weeks and months in leading the debate on our country’s future, I look forward to asking our fellow citizens to tell us their truth.

Read some of the commentary on the speech here at UCL, in The Guardian, on BBC Wales, on Wales Online and here on Click on Wales.

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