The debate around the future of Wales and Welsh Governance is one we must all engage with
Beth Winter, MP for Cynon Valley
In memory of the great Welsh historian, I was delighted to recently deliver the Gwyn Alf Williams Lecture to YesCymru Merthyr Tydfil and get into discussion with its supporters about the nature of devolution, independence and the future of the constitution.
The meeting took place days after the Constitutional Commission in Wales brought its roadshow to Aberdare, and followed closely the publication of the Welsh Government’s legislation to enlarge the Senedd. The debate around the future of Wales and Welsh Governance and how we relate to other political forces in this island is one we must all engage with.
Whilst I don’t share all the views of YesCymru activists, I recognise the growing strength of feeling in support of independence.
So I wanted to take an opportunity to share with them my views broadly on Welsh history, what I feel we can learn from that, what challenges and opportunities we face today and how we establish and maintain a vision of the kind of society which I want to see here in Wales.
I think we have to start with knowing where we’ve come from and here in the South Wales Valleys I am acutely aware of the significance of factors such as diversity, culture, identity, community and place, because they are an integral part of our understanding of who we are, where we are now, what we want to achieve and how we achieve it.
And that is why I value our history of change and of working class struggle. From the raising of the red flag on Hirwaun Common, above the communities of Cynon Valley to it then becoming a symbol and part of the struggle for workers’ rights and equality in the Merthyr Rising in 1831.
As Gwyn Alf himself said, “From that point…it was a militant working class consciousness which governed popular life in South Wales.”
Our Valleys have always been a hotbed of activity both economically, politically and culturally. The ironworks and coal industries thrived becoming at one point the most productive in the world.
The related population explosion with people migrating here to work saw community and cultural changes with the flourishing of chapels, the working men’s clubs, libraries, music, literature and language.
There was a strong sense of working class community and collectivism. The nineteenth century was also a hive of activity by the working class, what Gwyn Alf refers to as “y gwerin” from Chartism, Rebecca riots, Tithe War, all of which, in various ways and for different reasons, presented a powerful front against Victorian capitalism.
The culmination of that working class struggle saw the rise of the trade unions, especially the South Wales Miners Federation, and with it the rise of Labour politics in Wales, demonstrated by the election of Keir Hardie in the Merthyr and Aberdare seat in 1900.
The political focus at that time, and throughout the last century was – uniquely – the capture of power by Labour at Westminster. But it was another local MP, SO Davies – a true socialist who remains Merthyr Tydfil’s longest serving MP – who was very aware of Westminster’s stronghold and the adverse impact this had upon Wales.
This is why he campaigned for greater devolution and home rule for Wales. And this is why he proposed a Parliament for Wales Bill in the House of Commons which while unsuccessful did sow the seeds in many ways for our current Senedd.
I think part of that development and the creation of the Senedd can be understood by the decision of Thatcher’s Conservative Government to close the coal industry and pursue deindustrialisation without necessary public investment that saw the decline of our Valleys town and the alienation from Westminster politics.
The British state that took that decision was and remains one of the most centralised and authoritarian in the Western world. Sovereign power is concentrated in the sovereignty of UK Parliament.
But despite devolution, the current government continues to centralise power now. It has been riding roughshod over existing constitutional rights, re-centralising power – as with the Internal Market Act, Elections Bill, Policing Bill, Nationality and Borders Bill which, in Wales, has left no option for the Welsh Government but to withhold legislative consent.
The same is happening with the distribution of resources whether we look at the Shared Prosperity Fund or the Levelling Up agenda – UK government is bypassing democratically elected devolved governments to provide less funding to local authorities pitting them against each other.
And we are now experiencing a cost-of-living emergency, the worst in living memory.
I believe the challenges of post-Thatcher Britain require a journey towards establishing a radical alternative to neoliberal Britain. Constitutional change, for me, is not an end in itself, but an essential link in the process of changing society in the interests of the many.
I believe those of us on the left need to be arguing for fundamental reconfiguration of the British state but that it is necessary to situate the constitutional debate within an economic framework and look at where there are gains to be made for class-based politics. I believe there are opportunities for reform that will advance social justice.
One approach that challenges the existing political system is radical federalism which I have supported since being elected. Radical federalism seeks an equal partnership for the nations and regions of Britain and is founded on socialist principles.
In my view it would mean a voluntary union of nations and regions with the UK state performing limited functions, with guaranteed minimum and common standards across nations, and a commitment to a fair and needs based share of resources and prosperity across the whole of the UK.
But it is clear, as the Constitutional Commission is reviewing, that there are a variety of models and I am interested in the arguments for them all.
As I told those attending the recent lecture, I am in a listening mode.
I think Wales is already challenging the political status quo. The very cooperation agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru, led by Mark Drakeford and Adam Price, is in itself such a challenge to the political status quo and it is attempting policies that reflect a vision of a fairer more equal and diverse society.
The support for a nation of sanctuary, the climate change agenda, the commitment to public energy and a possible public construction company, the establishment of a UBI pilot, the Future Generations Commissioner, the Social Partnership Agreement and the refusal of legislative consent for some of the most draconian pieces of legislation by the UK Tory government, are all part of a new politics.
But there is another aspect of Welsh history that I think we need to understand as we develop a new agenda.
Our history has shown us how wealth created in these communities was extracted from here and taken from Wales. We cannot allow that to happen again. We must find ways to develop and retain wealth within our communities, throughout Wales and beyond for the benefit of all. This is where we learn from our history but make sure we don’t repeat it.
That’s why I commissioned the Bevan Foundation to undertake independent research on the ‘how’ of achieving a different approach on a local community basis.
Our friends in Blaenau Ffestiniog have coined the phrase ‘Cymunedoli – Communityisation’ to describe this movement which I think is very apt. That’s why in Cynon Valley recently we hosted friends from Blaenau Ffestiniog to share ideas and experiences and I will be visiting friends in West Wales within the next few weeks on a similar mission.
We cannot simply wait for change all the way in Westminster when our neighbours and friends cannot either eat or heat their homes, cannot afford to dress their children, do not have safe, comfortable homes, do not have work or where they do it is work that is insecure, short term and with low wages, where threats remain to our culture and language and most pressing of all the existential climate emergency which is the most pressing issue facing us and unless urgent action is taken threatens the future of our planet. We cannot wait. We need action now.
Working class communities
We are not alone in Wales in thinking and working along these lines. The advantage of a federalist approach in my view is that we bring together the commonalities of working-class communities throughout the UK and even beyond. For example there is the excellent work being undertaken by the Metro Mayors in North England like Andy Burnham in Manchester – a hotbed of work on versions
of a community wealth building approach, alongside similar work that has been undertaken in Preston and North Ayrshire.
The drawback with this is that it depends on UK Government and the powers in Westminster being prepared to let go of some of those powers.
But will they do that? That question is why I say independence has to be on the table.
This is in line with the work of the Constitutional Commission in Wales whose interim report proposed three possible courses of action – entrenched devolution, federalist structures and independence. The final report is due this year.
Ultimately it is for the people of Wales to decide.
But my judgement will be governed by that solution which I feel best delivers for the working class. We are, after all, in a class struggle.
It is becoming increasingly clear to me that there is a disconnection between conventional politics – the existing political and constitutional system – and the people of this country. Many people believe conventional politics doesn’t deliver for them. This is the case throughout the UK and is cause for concern.
Witness the Conservatives drift into conspiracy theorism and the assertion of untruths about their opponents policies. The hostility to politicians this can generate is unacceptable. The recent damage to Lee Waters’ and Nia Griffith’s office has no place in society. But it is also not a route to achieving change.
The next year or so will see a new General Election approach. In our current constitutional arrangement, there is no doubt a Labour Government in Westminster will improve the lives of millions of people. But I want to energise and engage people now, and I am also increasingly positive about the interest and commitment of people to the political concerns and issues of the day.
From the resurgence of trade unions fighting for better pay, to the right to food campaigns, the discussion around community wealth building, and yes – the constitutional settlement – including the devolution and independence debates and movements here in Wales and in Scotland alongside the move for greater regional autonomy in England and the climate change movements.
These can attract thousands of people. Many of them younger people, many of them disengaged as far as conventional political processes and parties are concerned. And they are the way we have to organise for a better society.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.