Liz Saville Roberts MP, Plaid Cymru Westminster leader
‘Wales isn’t too poor to be independent’ read the headline following my debate with ex-First Minister, Carwyn Jones on Tuesday. They were quoting Mr Jones, who seems to have had the revelation since standing down from the top job.
To be fair, he was always seen as more constitutionally inquisitive than the current Labour leadership in Cardiff, which cowers behind the letter of the party line from London.
The discussion about independence took place in a room packed to bursting at the National Eisteddfod. But it is also a debate that is happening with ever-increasing urgency throughout Wales, Scotland and Westminster. How long can the seams of the Union hold?
What has happened in Scotland, in paticular, should be a lesson to Welsh Labour. The mind-bedding, logic-defying debate between the Scottish and London Labour parties on the issue of a second Scottish independence referendum has caused them much public embarrassment this week.
The row flared up when the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonell, told an Edinburgh audience that a second independence referendum was a matter for the Scottish people and that a future Labour Westminster Government would not block one. The Scottish Labour party then rebuffed this, saying Westminster should not grant one.
To summarise, Scottish Labour are saying: ‘We want to be ruled by London, so ignore what our representatives from London are saying.’ Beyond logic.
Labour has suffered this sorry fate in Scotland thanks to their inability to offer a coherent answer to the urgent constitutional question.
A similar fate looks to befall them in Westminster and across the United Kingdom as a result of Labour dithering over Brexit.
And the dragon of independence is beginning to stir in Wales: Welsh Labour needs to decide on whose side they stand or face the prospect of again falling between two stools.
So far, the very visible and audible rise in support for independence – and the prospect of a further rise as a result of Westminster’s mishandling of Brexit – is at least forcing Labour to unplug their ears and listen.
Until now Labour thought they could ignore the problem, and even use it as a club to which to beat us: ‘But they support independence (laughs)!” was a common rebuttal of last resort for Labour politicians on the ropes in debates with Plaid Cymru on all manner of issues.
The tide is turning. Their tone is shifting. No longer are derision and indifference the order of the day. It is an issue not only firmly on the agenda, but quickly moving towards the top.
The former First Minister’s comments follow a series of statements by prominent Labour figures on the issue. The current First Minister, Mark Drakeford, made front-page news when he said his support for the Union was conditional. He later claimed that it was actually unconditional, only to be somewhat undermined a few weeks later by his Brexit Minister.
Jeremy Miles, also in the Eisteddfod, said a no-deal Brexit would lead to Labour questioning Wales’ place in the Union, noting that the UK was a “voluntary association of nations”.
The very fact that Labour are talking about Welsh independence is significant in and of itself. The fact that they are making such considered statements makes it doubly so.
But as many people pointed out after the debate, Carwyn Jones’s independence-sympathetic comments only came after he left office and thus abdicated the power to do anything about it. A very fair point – and, sadly, a classic Labour tactic.
And those present at the Eisteddfod debate will recall the ex-FM Jones’s repeated attempts to palm off his reluctant Indy-curiosity with the justification that the rampant English nationalism of the Tory party would force Wales to face the prospect of independence by default.
It’s the ultimate Welsh Labour politician’s excuse: ‘The English Tories made me do it, sir. It wasn’t my idea so don’t blame me if it all goes pear-shaped.’
For 20-years Labour-majority Governments in Wales have done little to demonstrate the benefits of remaining subservient to Westminster. Their lack of policy and a deficit of economic and constitutional creativity have shown up a fundamental weakness in the logic of the Union.
And despite their concerned words, as sure as night follows day, yet again, we will not see any grand gestures from the Labour party to fix this imbalance. Commentary is easy, but it is action which is needed and Labour have shown no intention of acting.
The very least they should do is establish Welsh Labour has a separate party so that their fair words might be assumed to have some weight of policy.
Come 2021, we cannot afford to retain a party in power whose only priority is to keep its privileged members in the style to which they have been too long accustomed. Our nation is facing big questions and huge challenges as inevitable constitutional changes come over the horizon.
That is why the first step – even if it is just to make Westminster sit-up and listen – is to elect a pro-independence Government in Cardiff Bay.