Mick Antoniw, Welsh Labour & Co-operative Member of the Senedd for Pontypridd
There are moments in history when opportunities emerge which enable us to create choices which have the capability of altering the direction of history and lead to radical and transformational change.
The 1945 General election was one such example – devolution, and Brexit, are amongst others. They have all contributed in their own way to tectonic shifts in the political direction of Wales and the UK.
The outcome of the 2019 General Election following on from Brexit, accompanied by the Internal Market Act and European Union Future Relations Bill is creating another such moment, catalysing and accelerating the disintegration of consensual governance in the United Kingdom.
We have reached a constitutional crossroad. Driving and accelerating this process is the UK Government’s pursuit of a right-wing neoliberal agenda; anglo-centric and largely out of synch with the political and cultural traditions of Wales. It has chosen to embark on a radical programme of centralisation of government, policy and finance, launching a process aimed at reversing or at best neutering devolution. UK government and Westminster politics is becoming increasingly synonymous with English government.
An inevitable consequence has been an incremental rapid growth in support and empathy for ‘independence’. However, the rapidity of this growth masks a diversity of views as to what ‘independence’ actually means and how it might be implemented.
There is, nevertheless, a remarkable degree of common ground amongst progressive political parties for radical change, probably around 80% agreement with the remaining 20% being around the issue of independence, the uncertainty of the forms it might take and what our relationship could or should be with England and the other nations of the UK.
This lack of definition is a crucial weakness because it restricts the capacity to build a political and civic consensus. For example, a spokesperson for Yes Cymru recently suggested that the test of independence would include having a seat at the UN and having our own written constitution. These aren’t insignificant factors – but they are no guarantors of independence.
Ukraine, for example, was a founder member of the UN and had its own written constitution guaranteeing its independence. It was not and did not become independent until 1991 and possibly not even until after the 2014 popular revolution.
The point I make is that our understanding of independence must be more expansive and inclusive and go beyond mere structural concepts.
It was also suggested recently that the issues of trade and currency amongst others were separate questions. I cannot agree with that. They go to the heart of the debate.
Defining the options for independence is a key political necessity. Failure to address this lacuna and build consensus around options for radical reform will guarantee that ‘independence’ remains marginal and incapable of winning a majority of hearts and minds for radical change. Latest polls, for what they are worth, suggest support for independence in the low twenties with opposition to independence at over 50 percent.
The absence of a viable range of choices weakens the case for reform. Issues such as currency, financial and social welfare interdependency, judicial functions, trade and taxation arrangements and many others are not ‘other questions’ for another day, they go to the core of what independence and reform means and what impact it would have on the wellbeing of the people of Wales who are unlikely to be won over unless they are confident that they will not be economically worse off.
I recently participated in the launch of a paper entitled Radical Federalism proposing a framework for the principles that should underpin radical reform around which a consensus could be built. The proposals in the paper are not made with the intention of saving or salvaging a future for the UK but rather look at the type of governance and society we want, our values and how we can empower individuals and communities.
The dysfunction of the UK impacts not just on Wales but also the regions of England. The momentum for decentralisation and empowerment is active across all parts of the UK and the growth of this process in England is of significant importance to Wales.
The choices for England are for England and cannot be allowed to determine the choices we must consider in Wales. However, where they overlap is where there is a basis for radical federal reform.
We must set up our own Welsh constitutional convention. It must be a process which engages across all parts and strands of our society, politically, geographically and socially. It should aim to develop common ground around which a broad proposal for radical reform can be built.
Polls also indicate a majority of people are in favour of increasing the powers of the Senedd or retaining the status quo. A smaller number want full independence, by which I take to mean a separatist model. Together they provides a basis for building a consensus for change.
A central issue for many of those who have to be won over is the future and nature of our relationship with the rest of the UK and in particular England.
Radical federalism and independence are not mutually exclusive concepts. What radical federalism proposes is an option which guarantees Welsh sovereignty but recognises that in the modern world in which we must share sovereignty where there is common benefit and mutual interest.
Constitutional reform must embrace this. Being part of the EU was not contrary to UK independence but was an example of shared sovereignty as is membership of the WTO. Every trade agreement involves sharing sovereignty as do international conventions.
Being part of a radically reformed UK, described by the First Minister as a voluntary union of nations would not be contrary to independence. Radical federalism offers a framework of principles around which this could be achieved and around which a majority of support from the people of Wales could be harnessed.
The same issues would have to be addressed even by a Scottish SNP government with a mandate for independence. Equally, England must decide its own future. But none of this should be merely about the creation of monolithic national parliaments but should recognise that empowerment of people and communities is at the core.
That means within the nations of the UK a further decentralisation of power, a renewed and an enhanced role for local government in accordance with the wishes of the people of the nations and regions of the UK.
Constructing a consensus for reform amongst progressive parties in the next Senedd is a priority if we are to be serious about change.
Mick Antoniw is the Labour Welsh Parliament / Senedd Member for Pontypridd and Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee. The Radical Federalism report can be accessed at http://www.radicalfederalism.com