Plaid Cymru are putting party political interest above defeating the UK Government’s threat to devolution

Mick Antoniw. Picture by the Welsh Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Mick Antoniw, Labour Member of the Senedd for Pontypridd and Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee of the Senedd.

I was invited to write this short article because of my criticism on social media of an article written by the leader of Plaid Cymru which promotes an opinion that Labour has paved the way for the Tories to smash devolution.

According to Adam Price, if only we had retained the Continuity Bill Welsh democracy would have been protected from the inherent damage posed by the Tory Internal Market Bill.

My response is not personal but an ideological criticism of the sort of shallow posturing over these issues which has bedevilled Plaid Cymru and prevented it from playing a credible role in the political and constitutional struggle facing Wales and the UK.

These postures may be good at gaining headlines a few months before Senedd elections, but they achieve little else.

I start with the Continuity Bill. Something I am very familiar with because at the time I was Counsel General to the Welsh Government. Early in my short sojourn in government in this role and almost immediately after the Article 50 Supreme Court judgment I began work on the concept and structure of a so-called Continuity Bill. The late Steffan Lewis was at the same time effectively promoting such a Bill on the floor of the Senedd in a way I could not.

The Bill which passed served two purposes. Firstly, if the UK Government could not get a Withdrawal bill passed, which although remote, was a possibility,  then under the devolution statutes all those functions in devolved areas exercised by Brussels would come to Wales. We needed a legislative framework within which those powers would be exercised.

Secondly whilst this lacuna existed the bill gave Welsh government tremendous negotiating leverage with a UK Government that had no clear majority. It achieved its purpose and led to an inter-governmental agreement skillfully negotiated by Mark Drakeford.

Scotland was initially unconvinced of the viability of such a Bill. I attended a joint meeting with members of the Scottish Government in Cardiff and laid out the reasons for a Bill. I asked them what they would do if the UK legislation failed and they were then left with powers but no legislative framework in which to exercise them. After that meeting, they pressed ahead with their own legislation.

It became an Act and it was this which gave the Welsh Government the political leverage to secure an Agreement as well as the legislative insurance for Wales in the event of a no EU Bill scenario. It achieved its purpose.

Repealing the Bill was part of the agreement. Had agreement not been reached the UK Government would have simply overridden it as they did in Scotland who took their Bill to the Supreme Court and failed.

At the time Plaid Cymru even claimed the Scottish judgment was a victory. It was not. Its failure was predictable. I do not criticise the Scottish Government for their strategy. Their objectives and political mandate are different and must be respected but Welsh Government did the right thing in protecting Welsh interests and it is important this is recognised.

 

Pointless

Adam Price’s contention that the Continuity Bill would or could have somehow saved Wales in the current crisis is fundamentally flawed and wrong.

That the Internal Market Bill is a threat to Wales and the UK is beyond reasonable doubt as I made clear in my recent article in Labour list.

Labour MPs deliberately abstained in the first vote on the Bill for good strategic reason.

As Labour leader Keir Starmer has made clear, he will lead the assault on the Bill by building alliances to amend it. If that fails Labour will oppose it.

Plaid Cymru must now step up to the mark to become a serious contributor to this strategy. Pointless and doomed to failure knee jerk opposition achieves nothing. Plaid must do better. Defeating the worst aspects of this Bill will require a common understanding of the real threat it poses to democracy, devolution and the rule of law. To win we must gain the support of the public as well as MP’s across parties and in the Lords.

This won’t be achieved if Plaid puts party political interest first and chooses to try and fight the Senedd elections on the subject of this Bill.

Misrepresentations

Labour is a democratic socialist party and it is these principles that have led us to supporting the most radical proposal for constitutional reform in Welsh history, a voluntary union of nations, which has become Welsh Government policy.

It is regrettable that Plaid has moved away from this approach and the social-democratic left towards a populist and more divisive model of ultra-nationalism. The response to every challenge that if only we were “independent” everything would be alright is simplistic, naïve and regressive.

I have some good friends and comrades who are members of Plaid. We disagree on some things but often have much we agree upon. In this particular political battle as socialists, we expect so much more from Plaid than headline-grabbing slogans and misrepresentations.

We need to work together to defeat this bill and what it represents.

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