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Opinion

The report of the Welsh Government’s Constitutional Commission is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Welsh Lib Dems

27 Feb 2024 5 minute read
The Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales has published it’s report on recommendations for Wales’ constitutional future

Neil Schofield-Hughes

The Welsh Liberal Democrats meet for their Spring Conference in Cardiff this weekend, and the agenda includes a discussion on the recent report of the Welsh Government’s Constitutional Commission.

That report stands as both a challenge and an opportunity for Welsh Liberal Democrats, at a time when the party whose predecessor once dominated Welsh politics is sitting on its margins without a clear political identity in the minds of most Welsh voters.

The party will have noted that the Commission – of which former Welsh Liberal Democrat leader and Cabinet Minister Kirsty Williams was a member – included its chosen position, federalism, as one of the three viable constitutional options for Cymru.

But the Commission’s report is hardly enthusiastic; its caveats expose some of federalism’s fundamental problems.

Consensus

One is that it requires a consensus across the United Kingdom about future constitutional arrangements, but the reality is that the different constituent parts of the UK are moving further apart politically.

Even within the Liberal Democrat party itself, there is no agreement on the structure of a post-Federal England – not because there is passionate ideological debate, but because nobody in England, even in its lone explicitly pro-Federal party, appears to care very much.

That doesn’t help in Cymru, where opinion polls show that growing numbers of people – especially young people – want independence.

And as Richard Wyn-Jones reminded last November’s Break Up of Britain conference in Edinburgh, not only does England lack a coherent political identity, but the regionalism proposed in Labour’s Brown report is the least popular option among English voters; and that political Englishness, insofar as it exists at all, is likely to take the form of a truculent sense of grievance, that I would argue has little in common with the more generous political ambitions of independence movements in Cymru and Scotland, or of liberalism for that matter.

Veto

Federalism, by giving the one part of the United Kingdom that doesn’t really care about constitutional change an effective veto, looks very much like a “long grass” option; it gives the impression of wanting to do something while ensuring that there is little risk that you will ever actually have to do it.

With the Commission warning that urgent changes are needed simply to preserve Cymru’s limited devolution settlement, something a little more ambitious is needed.

But what of the other options?  The very fact that the Commission has declared that independence is viable, throws out a challenge for those who wish to continue the Union in one form or another – that of justifying it politically.  It’s no longer about whether independence would “work” – we’ve now gone beyond that – but understanding that the Union is a political choice.

Speaking personally, I am a liberal who believes that the entire logic of liberalism – of an open, democratic, socially generous, diverse outward-looking nation with legally-enforceable rights based on a written constitution, working constructively as part of a rules-based international order – points inexorably to independence, especially when it is so clear that Westminster, across the party divide, is moving in the opposite direction.

This is very much a minority view among Welsh Liberal Democrats, although it is one that I sense is growing.

And I understand the concerns.  The creation of borders, physical, ideological and emotional, with the rest of the UK, when most people value the profound links we have – is unacceptable.

Brexit

But that’s about the “how”, not the “whether”, of independence.  Some liberals argue that independence would just mean a rerun of the divisions of Brexit: but Brexit was intended to divide, and the new Cymru needs generosity and inclusion hard-wired from the start. Independence, I believe, is a creative force; Brexit was a wholly destructive one.

And perhaps it’s worth reflecting that the apogee of Welsh Liberalism occurred at a time when it was clearly advocating political autonomy for Cymru – the age of Cymru Fydd.

Right now, the Welsh Liberal Democrats look like a party in need of a big idea –  with Westminster sliding into populist authoritarianism, could that idea be independence?

How confident are Liberals that the principles and ambitions set out in its statement of principles A Liberal Wales could be implemented within the Union, with an incoming Labour Government in Westminster seemingly determined to turn the Commission report into another shelf-warmer, alongside all those previous reports on Welsh democracy, and with austerian fiscal rules hard-wired into our funding settlements?

Finally, with Westminster descending almost daily into further illiberal chaos, the reality becomes more obvious by the day – the Union is a failing state.  What comes after it? Failing states can collapse surprisingly quickly – which is why I believe we need intellectually-serious, imaginative thinking right across the Welsh civic society, about what happens next.

The priorities of liberalism – how you build an open society on a foundation of rights, on democratic decision-making that engages and does not come from the top down, of openness and participation – are the language of state-building.  I want an intellectually-confident, forward-looking liberalism, working constructively with voices and traditions from across Welsh society, to be at the heart of the making of the new Cymru.

In a world of authoritarian populism, reasserting liberal and democratic principles has never seemed more important. How the Welsh Liberal Democrats respond to the challenges of the Commission Report could make the difference between revival and irrelevance

 


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Richard E
Richard E
1 month ago

In the words of that grear international statesman Abba Eban …. “ i fear they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity “.

The Lib Dems had their chance

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
1 month ago

I was once a Lib Dem councillor and when liberal values are promoted in Wales many people will vote for them as they are good values. However, the party became stuck on it’s opposition to Welsh independence and it’s support of federalism, so I had to leave, I just don’t support federalism and believe the union is failing Wales. The concept of independence should be embraced by the Welsh Lib Dems, after all it promotes the real possibility, as the report suggests, of success. The liberal values of equality, tolerance and the reduction in poverty have a better chance of… Read more »

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Duggan

This must be the best article ever written. How does being ruled and controlled from Westminster sit alongside ‘Not being forced to conform…’ as written on the back of Liberal Democrat membership cards. I too was a member of the Liberal Democrat Party when I worked in England for thirty years, when coming back to Wales it was just this problem of England being the largest unity political entity in the union being able to outvote Wales and Scotland, not to mention Northern Ireland. I left the Liberal democrat Party to join the larger liberal party in Wales which is… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
1 month ago

My paternal family were mostly Liberals. My Dad switched to Plaid when I was a boy. I stumped him with a question one day … “Where’s Wales’ parliament?” I think I was about 9 or 10 and was watching the news. Thatcher and Kinnock were the prime movers at the time. When he explained the situation to me I was astonished. That feeling has never left me. It’s funny, because kids reactions can be quite honest in their innocence. It got my Dad thinking. It isn’t fair that Wales does not exercise its own Democracy in full. It never has… Read more »

Mr Williams
Mr Williams
1 month ago

Federation is a non-starter. I am baffled why nobody is considering confederation. Having a British Confederation would mean each nation is fully self governing, with international recognition, while pooling sovereignty in areas where they could work best, e.g. currency, central bank, defence, foreign affairs etc. A ‘Federal UK’ would leave an unequal union with England as the dominant nation, due to its population size (or it would need to be split into regions, which is not a popular idea there); whereas in a confederation, the population size of the member countries would not matter, as the pooled legislature could have… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Mr Williams
Annibendod
Annibendod
1 month ago
Reply to  Mr Williams

Plaid policy. Think it’s a sound idea. At the end of the day, we’ll want freedom of movement, employment, cooperation on policing, security, defence etc. I’m happy with a confederation. Devil will be in the detail but it would be my preference.

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
1 month ago

The Lib Dems lost all credibility for me when their went into government with the Tories and inflicted austerity and a huge increase in student fees upon us. We are still suffering from the impact of the cuts made to our infrastructure by them

Rob
Rob
1 month ago
Reply to  Linda Jones

Nick Clegg has a lot to answer for, but I would much rather have the Lib Dems as the third biggest party than Reform UK.

Last edited 1 month ago by Rob

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