What is to be done? A Labour Perspective on the Question of Wales

Cardiff Bay from St David’s hotel

Dr Huw Williams responds to yesterday’s poll by Yes Cymru which suggested that a quarter of the population supports Welsh independence.

It is with great pride – and not a little trepidation – that I write this article for Nation; a newspaper that both responds to, and seeks to capture the radical spirit of our times.

This spirit is slowly awakening here in Wales in response to the tumultuous events that surround us, yet its form is indistinct.

What can be said with certainty is that the rise of the far right and the spectre of Brexit have pressed upon us the need to think anew.

We need to articulate visions of Wales that respond not only to this immediate threat, but more fundamentally to the accretion of economic, environmental and societal challenges that has been put to the back of our minds for too long.

Such are the pitfalls of the 5 years cycle of democratic politics of course, which responds to the demands of the next election and not the next generation.

However, it is time to think about more than just the next coat of paint or changing the furniture; we must now look further than simply housekeeping – cadw ty – and consider the fundamentals of our home.

Debate

To this end, people from all political persuasions must recognise – if they are at all interested in a thriving democracy – that our political society in Wales must be reconstructed.

In Leighton Andrew’s words, we have created a Welsh polity (the institutions, laws and structures of a devolved Wales) without the accompanying public sphere.

This concept embodies the political and societal life that constitutes the debates and discussion which influence the substantive actions of the polity.

It is held by many to be a vital component of any democracy, which is set to perish if this ingredient of civil life fails to flourish.

In the days of yore, it would be the chapel, the clubs, and the unions that provided the nursery for its development; it is one of the ironies of modern Wales that a public sphere of this nature was fast diminishing, just at the point when our own polity sprang into life.

Reconstructing the Public Sphere

Yet we should not be too despondent because in this digital age we have the tools for a revival.

We have the opportunity to buttress and bring to attention those grassroots elements that continue to thrive, and to encourage new online and hybrid forms of public debate through the internet and social media.

We also have certain advantages in Wales: a certain personal proximity, accessible community and institutional networks, and an ‘elite’ in the politics and press that thus far remain in reach.

Whilst there is work to be done for many marginalized groups in our society, our polity is in a position to hear and to listen to the disparate voices in our public sphere.

There is, however, some progress to be made with respect to our media, as is detailed in Andy Williams’ far-reaching and thorough report on the state of play in Wales. This is where Nation can come into its own and, I hope, provide a focus for our national debate.

It is my own view that we have a nascent public sphere in Wales, with a few news outlets and websites that provide ample content for discussion.

But there is little sense in which they represent a coherent Welsh media that speaks to each other and provides the sense of such a national dialogue.

I have heard it claimed that our main media outlets consciously ignore stories generated by others, rather than build upon them.

It certainly feels that there is too much talking past each other to create a feeling of debate and excitement that can challenge the London/British media as the definitive paradigm.

As well as providing original, substantial content (the ideal I have in mind here is the French paper Le Monde) it is my own hope that Nation can eventually provide an online platform that curates and draws together the most significant discussions and writings from those disparate sources.

A Welsh Nationalist Labour?

There may, of course, be plenty of politicians and members within my own party who are happy to remain within such a British paradigm.

But one obvious conclusion to be drawn from the startling results of this week’s YouGov poll is that for an increasing number of Labourites that paradigm is loosening its grasp and its pertinence.

The desire to abandon it entirely becomes even more enticing when viewed against the prospect of unadulterated Westminster Tory rule.

That roughly a third of Labour voters are in favour of an Independent Wales is in itself a significant figure.

This rises to roughly half (excluding don’t knows) with the prospect of a Tory majority after June 8th.

This is a clear indication that – more than buttressing our current polity and carving out a more prominent niche within the British state – it is a basic decoupling that is viewed by many as the way forward for a properly social democratic Wales.

Protecting Wales

Indeed, one might comment that the second figure is the more important –  for it might be said that it represents the 50% or so for whom the principal argument has been won.

This, at least, is what may be gleaned from Rhodri Morgan’s opinion with respect to the argument that won the day for devolution.

On the doorstep, it was the claim that it should be viewed as a safeguard against Tory rule that won the day – if a Thatcher was to return then it would protect Wales.

In the same vein, the additional 14% – for whom the prospect of Theresa May’s rule is enough to persuade them about independence – could be similarly persuaded that the step to independence must be taken regardless, to guard against future regression.

It is the other half of the Labour vote where the greater interest lies, and whether or not some in this camp would be amenable to independence, on the back of a sustained discussion and debate around the issues.

Should these figures be viewed as surprising? For those outside the Labour movement it may raise an eyebrow, as much as the recent election polling in Wales, but for those of us within its ranks this display of support for independence may not be such an epiphany.

The Red Dragon and the Red Flag

In the first instance, it is a straightforward reflection of a small yet relatively robust tradition in the party, which in modern parlance would be termed indycurious or indyconfident.

Keir Hardie’s ‘Red Flag and Red Dragon’ is often rolled out as a reference point here to remind us that home rule was a popular concept in the formative years of the party.

Individuals such as S.O. Davies, Jim Griffiths, Cledwyn Hughes, Elystan Morgan and more recently Paul Flynn are figures who might be seen to range across this indy-spectrum.

Since the inception of the Assembly, Welsh Labour Grassroots (at least until its merger with Momentum) has been the source of debates and support for more radical autonomy and co-operation with Plaid.

For those who claim Corbyn has no sympathy for Wales or little understanding of the country, they might bear in mind it was WLG members such as Darren Williams and Meic Birtwistle who organised his campaigning in Wales.

The commitments in the PLP manifesto to federalization will not have been plucked from the air.

Has Britain had its chance?

There is also, I suspect, another ‘realist’ strand within the party that are susceptible to the allures of independence.

I am thinking here of an older generation of patriots who pinned their hopes on the Labour Party (rather than a more idealistic nationalism) to deliver prosperity, self-respect and equality for Wales and its people, as much as to pursue the universal goals of social democracy.

It would come as no surprise if many of these people have now concluded that despite the advantages their generation gleaned in the 60s and 70s, the British state has had its chance.

There is also the prospect that there may be some who are not connected so deeply to a sense of Welsh identity but regard themselves as committed, universalist social democrats.

They have likewise concluded that the progression of the cause must now focus on political communities that exist outside (and inside) the framework of our sprawling, monolithic and unitary modern states such as the UK.

Brexit will no doubt influenced Labour voters of this persuasion.

More prosaically, a Labour Party member need only have looked on at the Rhondda, and more pertinently Blaenau Gwent, to see that occasional fractures allow an opening for Labour people to be persuaded by the cause of independence.

A glimpse of the future

And what of the practical implications for Carwyn Jones and Welsh Labour in the short to mid-term?

In one sense the polling may be welcome for the leader as he seeks to push forward his agenda of radical devolution for Wales.

If there is an emergent nationalist wing within the party, then he will be able to situate himself as a leader who is seeking to occupy the middle ground.

Such positioning has been one of his priorities by necessity, for Welsh Labour represents a coalition of interests and ideas across more than one political spectrum.

Fissures

However, therein lies the danger also, for this polling might also be taken to represent a polarization of views within his party.

There is the possibility of wider fissures between perspectives that to some extent may be mapped onto the gap that is emerging between the Welsh members of the PLP and the AMs.

In terms of grassroots support it is worth noting that those on the nationalist end of the spectrum have another home to go to, whilst it’s harder to see where the more Unionist side may go if the course steered is too radical for their liking.

The internal politics of the mooted devolution of Welsh Labour from the British Labour Party may need to be managed carefully here lest the emergence of two parties becomes a possibility.

Searching for answers

For those of us not exercised by the imperative of leadership nor Unionist in perspective there are undoubtedly positive elements to this emerging story.

For one, it shows a dissatisfaction with current circumstances that is the lifeblood of any progressive politics.

It suggests that people are searching for answers with respect to the current state of play, which on a broader level represents a crisis for social democracy in failing to grasp the challenges of our post-capitalist society.

As an academic who values critical thought it pleases me also that this level of support can emerge in less than encouraging circumstances.

It demonstrates a certain independence of mind on behalf of many supporters – which is vital to any flourishing institution.

Suffocating discussion

The current Labour party hardly represents a welcoming climate for the idea of Welsh independence, after all, and one of its more dispiriting and frankly unedifying elements at present is the tendency of some key figures to attempt to suffocate the discussion.

One example of this is the disingenuous tendency to refer to the current (hypothetical) deficit in Welsh Government spending as some sort of proof of the permanent inability of Wales to be self-sustaining.

It is a fundamental issue of course, but those who continue to take this dismissive line are in danger of doing down Wales and its people.

They also seem to forget they espouse a political philosophy that has the capacity for human transformation and improvement at its heart, and is seems odd to pedal the belief that the Welsh people are singularly incapable of such reform.

If we are to remain sceptical about the prospects of Welsh independence, it should not be on the spurious claim that the Welsh are incapable (for that is what their line of argument amounts to).

Rather it should be because of the more positive long term prospects of remaining in the Union.

Increasingly, given the relative deprivation of Wales, it seems the burden of proof should lie as much with the naysayers as it does those making the case in favour.

Indeed, in crude terms one might say that whilst those in favour of independence face the issue of addressing the immediate issues of the deficit and other transitional issues, those against have a difficult task (given the last half century or so) to persuade people that the UK will favour Wales in the long term.

An Irish friend of mine commented during the Scottish referendum campaign that she thought the Scots could be rather satisfied with the Union, and that leaving seemed slightly OTT; the Welsh, however, were a different matter.

The debate begins now

Ultimately, social democracy is a philosophy that aspires to the general good, to the progress of humanity everywhere, and in my opinion, should not gravitate around questions of political nationalism.

Patriotism and national identity are not indelibly tied to the state, as we have proved in Wales, and they would persist within a more integrated international system of global governance, or where sovereignty is radically devolved to the local level.

Therein lies the greatest potential for the debate around Welsh independence within the Labour Party.

Let it be a spur to a more wide-ranging, radical discussion of what social democracy means in Wales.

It should encompass who we are, what it is we value as a people, and how – as part of a global community – we are going to work towards a more promising, sustainable future for our children.

One thing that can be said with certainty, unless Corbyn can work more of his campaign magic, the British state will not provide us with much promise come June the 9th.

And if he should save us from the Tories, let it at least be a warning to us that the UK is an entity that needs radical surgery, if the cause of social democracy is to flourish.

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2 Comments

  1. I don’t think anyone could disagree with what Dr Huw Williams quite eloquently says in his opening pitch. Although, it is basically a repeat rhetoric with some long English words that we have heard before and proof that a Labour ‘perspective’ is not only outdated, but has no place in our country anymore. As someone who studies prehistory/history, I know we cannot change the past and we must not dwell there however, we can certainly change the present to create a better future. The change he mentions can only come through Independence nothing more and nothing less.

    Regarding the paint analogy, I do not know anyone within the Independence ‘sphere’ who is considering a new coat of paint and we will certainly would not accept or tolerate any more whitewashes that have constantly eminated from Westminster or their llackies within Cymru for far too long. Nor are we wanting to change brands either, we look soley toward a free, open and untarnished Cymru from the exterior to its core, especially from the top to the bottom.

    Like the roundhouses of our prehistoric ancestors we shall have no corners where corruption and evil can hide.

    As Dr Huw openly states, it is from a “Labour perspective”. Not a Llafur Cymru ‘perspective’ because it is not. It is a Labour perspective as layed down by the Labour party, a foreign based party and therefore from a foreign based perspective. Which begs the question, do they have any right at the table discussing the future of Cymru? The answer is no, otherwise we may as well invite other foreign based parties and nationals to discuss it, maybe the French? After all they are a republic and surely would not do as bad as the anglo-norman establishment based at Westminster has for the past 1500+ years!

    Anyway, my first impression regardly the title “What is to be done? A Labour Perspective on the Question of Wales” was whoa, do people really still think and talk like this in the 21st century?! I guess the answer is, unfortunately, they do. The phrase smacks of that 19th century statement known as the ‘Irish question’. This was a phrase used mainly by members of the British ruling elite regarding those fighting for Irish freedom and indepependence in another land the ‘British’ had invaded and despoiled.

    We don’t need these outdated British labels when talking about our nation and people, they are not polite nor helpful. Unless anyone, of course, feels they are British and not Cymrieg, which again begs the question, do they have a right in discussing our future when their allegiance is plainly elsewhere?

    There is yet another term used throughout the piece I and many cannot agree with or accept. Neither shall we tolerate it and will continue to bring people to account until it is wiped from our language, writings and psyche. It is the use of another outdated, this time anglo-saxon term, wéalas viz wales viz foreigner the ‘w’ word is I call it. It is a name that enslaves us to the English elitist and British lapdog system. It perpetuates English dominance and disrespects our heritage because we are not foreigners in what is left of our own lowlands, highlands and islands, we are indigenous to them. We are Cymrieg and we are in what we know as the land of fellow countrypeople not a land of foreigners, that’s next door (and once ours)!

    However, as with everything about late 20th century Labour, where it is more than apparant they are stuck, there is a certain disrespect and untrustworthiness about them and everything they do regarding our nation. You do not have to take my word for it, just look at their actions whether today in the Senedd or their history throughout Cymru with situations or complicity in disasters such as Aberfan. Apart from the actions of the National Coal Board in the cause, to aid clear up the slip the then Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson’s government forced a contribution from the donations given freely to the disaster fund, by everyone throughout these isles and abroad, to help the families and community recover the best they could.

    Not only has their political surety of re-election bred an arrogance beyond belief, but it has taken them so far away from the fundamental roots and beginnings of the party. James Keir Hardie a great socialist and first ever Labour MP would not recognise the party he founded as it is today. As a socialist myself I know he would be right in thinking they are the modern day Tory party. Why? Because, these days we keep seeing Labour, time after time, proposing or backing right wing policies. He would also see them teaming up with the Tories in our Senedd, doing deals and voting against our only major home grown party (Plaid Cymru) on nearly every subject or issue, whether they agree or not. This can vary from our language, to house names, steam rollering through British policies of housing (for more English settlement), recently a new prison, to major votes on the rights of all Cymrieg under the current British occupation and subjugation.

    Now, to be fair and balanced, UKIP, Liberal Democrats and the Tories are all foreign based political parties and believe it or not the Tories were once the sworn enemy of Labour, but now we find them constant bed fellows.

    So, as I close my humble offering I do welcome Dr Huw’s honesty in the title which, I take to be, an open admission that Labour does not know what to do anymore and another reason why we should not even consider their ‘perspective’. If the Labour party had any loyalty toward Cymru that died many years ago in the younger days of my late Father, Mother and many other good and true Cymry. Those who fought and sometimes died for the (diminishing) rights we have today.

  2. The contrast between “polity” and “public sphere” is a worthwhile one I think. Too large a proportion of the country never got their heads around the devolution that we DO have – there’s uncertainty about what’s devolved and what’s not. There’s uncontested Country Councils up and down the country, and many people cannot name their local representative – this is not unique to Wales of course but it could be different.

    The fact that a Tory majority would boost support for independence shouldn’t surprise anyone – it’s a natural side effect of the fact that Wales consistently votes more to the left but seldom sways the overall UK vote.

    That’s reflected in the makeup of the Senedd but it’s unfortunate that the watered down devo has opened an avenue for the argument “Well the assembly hasn’t made us richer so why would independence?”

    I must go and read Red Dragon Red Flag now – it’s a bit of historical politics I didn’t know much about.

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