Brexit could cause a seismic shift in Labour’s thinking on devolution

Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford, who has been attending Brexit discussions with Scottish and UK Government ministers. Picture by NHS Confederation (CC BY 2.0)

Sophie Williams

Brexit continues to dominate headlines; in recent weeks, we have seen speeches by key UK Government ministers (including analogies to dystopian fiction and promises of great architectural achievements), slow policy shifts from Corbyn and demands from influential pro-Brexit groups from within the UK Conservative Party.

As is usually the case, Scottish and particularly Welsh voices are ignored in mainstream debate, yet developments in these arenas pose central challenges to any future Brexit agreement.

Up to now, the Welsh and Scottish governments have presented a fairly united front, aligned with colleagues in Stormont. All sides are concerned by the potential impact of Brexit on devolution, prompting strange bedfellows to put aside their differences in the interests of maintaining current national sovereignty.

Devolved administrations seem to be gaining momentum; both the Welsh and Scottish governments are seeking to introduce Continuity Bills into their respective chambers, with the Welsh Bill passing in the Assembly by a large majority.

These bills are prompted by seemingly increasing concern that there will be a ‘power-grab’ on the part of the UK Government. Devolved ministers worry that in March 2019, powers currently held at EU level will be ‘repatriated’ back to Westminster, including those that cover remits which are now devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Relationships between the UK Government and its devolved counterparts have not always run smoothly (see for example the Agricultural Sector [Wales] Bill); devolved administrations are arguably correct to be concerned that they will lose out in this process, as powers for which they are constitutionally responsible will be once again in the hands of ministers and civil servants in London.

Labour and devolution

Brexit has thrown into sharp relief the ways in which Wales, and particularly Welsh Labour, have developed in their attitudes towards devolution and the concept of what is and what is not best decided at a Welsh level.

Keen historians will undoubtedly be aware of the multifaceted relationship between Wales and self-government; never an easy road, it looked as if the question was settled following the decisive ‘No’ vote in the 1979 referendum only for that to be turned on its head with an admittedly indecisive  ‘Yes’ vote in 1997.

Welsh Labour, too, have undergone a similarly dramatic transformation; gone are the days of Labour being openly divided over devolution, we are now in a place where many of the political parties, including even the Welsh Conservatives, support increasing powers for Wales.

It is in this new place that the ways in which Welsh Labour’s attitudes towards devolution are highly apparent.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there have traditionally been two wings to Welsh Labour: the Labour heartlands of the South Wales Valleys and the North East, where class is the defining issue, and a cultural, often Welsh-speaking, West Walian wing that felt a stronger sense of purpose around Wales having its own political identity.

It is this latter wing that appears to be in the ascendancy; all Welsh Labour politicians now proudly claim that Labour is the party of devolution and is the only party that can safeguard Welsh interests in the face of continued Conservative government at Westminster.

The dominance of this school of thought has seen a continued evolution and strengthening of support for devolution of further powers to Cardiff Bay; the 2004 Richard Commission paved the way for primary law-making capabilities while last year’s Wales Act (2017) allows the National Assembly for Wales to raise some of its own taxes, as part of a ‘reserved powers’ model as is the case for Scotland.

Welsh Labour is already making progressive use of these new powers particularly in relation to land transaction tax and landfill disposal taxes, while a consultation is underway around Welsh electoral reform, following a report by an expert panel that argued for an increase in the number of Assembly Members and for a change in the voting system.

Many Welsh Labour AMs have argued that the Wales Act (2017) does not go far enough and serious reservations were expressed about the Bill prior to it passing the Assembly.

Independence?

However, none of this is to suggest that mainstream Welsh Labour positioning is moving any nearer to favouring outright independence for Wales.

It could be argued that Welsh Labour’s views represent in part a reaction to outside pressures; the party makes no secret of its desire to prevent Plaid Cymru from growing in support (although some Welsh Labour politicians are more antagonistic towards Plaid Cymru than others), while at the same time, the party is in the unique position of being the only Labour government in the UK, giving it a strengthened profile and ability to shape the views of Welsh voters.

Further, the future of the UK Labour leadership will also play a decisive role; it is debatable to what extent Welsh Labour’s success in last year’s General Election can be divorced from the wider concept of a revolutionised UK Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership.

So, what is the prospect of further devolution, potentially leading to greater autonomy and even independence, under Welsh Labour?

The most recent polling has support for independence at 7%, with 44% arguing for more powers for the Assembly.

If we imagine that amongst Labour voters these figures are likely different, with potentially less support for independence, the rationale behind Welsh Labour’s constitutional positioning is clear; the majority view favours greater powers but not independence.

To remain electorally dominant, the party should align with the majority view, and while the Conservatives continue to hold government in Westminster, Welsh Labour is easily able to present itself as pro-further devolution, given the general opposition to Conservative policies from Welsh voters (as was clear from last year’s general election results, where Welsh Labour won nearly 50% of the overall vote share).

An uncertain future

Were these circumstances to change, however, the situation could look very different; the prospect of a Labour government in Westminster were undoubtedly strengthened by the 2017 General Election result and current polling figures.

Meanwhile, Brexit and conflicts over the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic could mean increased pressure from both Northern Ireland and Scotland towards divorce from the UK.

There is also matter of the Welsh Labour leadership; although he has no current plans to stand down, Carwyn Jones is widely expected to resign as First Minister sooner rather than later.

The attitude of his successor to devolution is critical; someone in that position has the capacity to help mould public opinion, and whether Wales moves closer to or further from greater autonomy.

Current internal Welsh Labour battles highlight the sense of anticipation; how the party leadership is elected, when a vacancy arises, will have a significant impact on Wales’ constitutional future.

There are, then, a great many uncertainties. The current situation in Catalonia, for one, should give us serious pause for thought; in the context support for ‘stateless nations’ does not seem to be high on the EU agenda.

What seems clear, however, is the potential for Brexit to cause a seismic shift in thinking on what may be in Wales’ best interests constitutionally.

As the negotiations progress there is the potential for opposition from backbench Conservative MPs, who could reject whatever final deal is put to the House of Commons.

The strongly pro-EU Welsh Labour may need to rethink its strategy further, with evident consequences for its relationship with the UK as a whole.

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