An examination of the national question in Wales

Nathan James makes the case for progressive federalism for the people of Wales - and the other nations of Britain - as the basis for democratic empowerment and the radical redistribution of wealth
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Alongside Brexit, with the rise in popularity for independence in Wales, its continued prominence in Scotland, and correspondingly, the demand for Irish reunification; constitutional questions have moved to the top of the political agenda. Unless the labour movement is ready to engage with this debate; class contradictions and inequality will continue to fester until the people erupt in an emotional response rather than as part of a considered response based in class politics.

This examination of the national question in Wales is the first piece in a continuing engagement in this ongoing discourse surrounding our nation’s future constitutional framework. The labour movement should support building a socialist federal republic throughout Britain, that recognises Welsh nationhood by placing industry, land and commerce under the democratic control and ownership of the Welsh people; seeking to raise self-esteem and class consciousness by engaging with working people and injecting new militancy into socialist politics.

The independence movement in Wales

Unfortunately, federalism seems to be missing from our national debate, which has been dominated by the independence movement. A recent poll has shown that 21% of people would vote in favour of Welsh independence if there was a referendum. However, there is still huge opposition; and more support is shown for Wales to abolish the Assembly than for independence. The latest YouGov poll for ITV Cymru Wales and Cardiff University found 21% of the 1,009 adults polled said they would vote for Welsh independence; with 57% said they would not. Regardless, support for the independence has grown by around 11% since 2013; with some pundits claiming that Wales has become “indy-curious.”

The Welsh independence movement has grown in strength and numbers. YesCymru is the largest campaign for an independent Wales. The organisation was formed in 2014 in response to the Scottish Independence Referendum and officially launched on 20th February 2016 in Cardiff. They have around 2,500 members, 40 branches across Wales and supports the activities of individuals and groups seeking to further the cause of Welsh independence.

In May 2019 the group held its first ever independence march, in conjunction with organisers All Under One Banner Cymru. Up to 3,000 people attended the event and speakers included Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price, performer Carys Eleri, and Ben Gwalchmai of Labour 4 Indy Wales. Two months later, a second march was held in Caernarfon where 10,000 people gathered at Y Maes, with prominent speakers included Dafydd Iwan and Hardeep Singh Kohli. A third march took place in Merthyr Tydfil in September 2019. 5,300 attended the rally where speakers included Eddie Butler, Neville Southall, and Kizzy Crawford. And finally, in January 2020 the organisation was the driving force behind the push to get Yma O Hyd – Dafydd Iwan ac ar Log to the top of the iTunes Charts, which it successfully did.

While YesCymru has grown in popularity, they remain a broad coalition bringing together many strands of the independence movement. Undod was set up to fill an arguably vital gap in the burgeoning independence movement in a country with a dominant socialist and labour movement heritage and which understands the requirement of a radical change in its politics. The group emphasises the need for independence to embody values and policies that will make a substantive change to the quality of life of many people. Undod intends to campaign on the key issues causing suffering and injustice in Wales now, maintains the line that being free from the regressive British state will be the only way for Welsh communities to flourish on a permanent basis.

Socialists who advocate for Welsh Independence argue the British state is reactionary and imperialist. For admirable reasons they believe Welsh and Scottish independence, coupled with Irish Reunification would be a significant step in weakening British imperialism, the USA and their imperialist foreign policies; a step all socialists would support. They recognise Wales is a post-industrial nation, advocating a move away from an “any old job mentality,” where “automation and specialisation is used to improve the lives of its people, rather than the chasing of capital may truly be what the independence movement needs.” From this perspective independence should be about the needs of the people living in Wales.

Progressive federalism

They claim that the “anti-independence” left has stressed that the dissolution of the British state would weaken working-class solidarity across the nations of the Britain, but argue this link between the British state and solidarity of British workers is a fallacy, often arguing for Wales to remain in the EU. From this faulty basis of internationalism, Sel Williams of Undod criticises sections of the British left that follow the British Road to Socialism, particularly Communist Party and “some of the older generation members of the Labour Party, including Corbyn,” for supporting Brexit. Aside from Corbyn, Williams charges the rest with the igneous crime of advocating “socialism in one country,” an old debate in Marxian discourse from the early-twentieth century regarding the development of October Revolution and the Soviet Union. They disparage this rhetoric as preparing “the way for dangerous ideas about ‘National Socialism’.”

Fascist comparisons aside, it is not the aim of this analysis to dredge up an old debate which has little relevance outside of obscure Marxist circles, instead it should be noted that regardless of whether the socialist revolution is situated in one geopolitical formation or simultaneously across the globe; state structures and constitutions are not neutral, they are moulded by class forces, the hegemonic material forces of global capital and over time are adjusted to produce undemocratic outcomes.

For example, the EU avoids direct democratic accountability so that its basic purpose cannot be undermined or changed simply by the outcome of an election. The EU’s constitution, treaties and structures were designed so that its essential core continues regardless of national or European elections. While Westminster maintains various anti-democratic elements of feudal society such as the Monarchy, an unwritten constitution, and a House of unelected Lords; and from these contradictions, the present Westminster arrangement is losing its clear role as a British Parliament. An independent Wales would neither necessarily be a bastion of socialism nor the launching pad of some global revolution by merely becoming independent, as it too would be subjected to the same hegemonic domination the capitalist class and moulded into another vassal state destitute against the monstrous effects of capitalism in decay.

The electoral system for the Welsh Parliament was designed supposedly to create a collaborative style of politics, but instead embedded the dominance of Labour in the Senedd and local government. For example, despite local government in Wales adopting a form of proportional representation, this has been manipulated to meet desired anti-democratic results. It depoliticised the councillors’ role, made them into another layer of managers and in the process ensured that they would struggle to build a base to challenge the Welsh government. Furthermore, the recent flirtation with the Corbyn project has created an environment where our national government is unchallenged from the Left.

Therefore, when we consider what constitutional arrangement is best for Wales, we should start the process in terms of what it is we hope to achieve and then identify the structure that would help achieve it. Our aim should be to build class consciousness and solidarity across borders so our nations would break away from seeing issues in terms of Welsh, Scottish and English interests, in favour of class interests. A federal parliament is the arena in which this can begin to happen.

Central to the discussions about federalism is the difference between self-rule or shared rule. Self-rule has been devolved to Wales, Scotland, Occupied Ireland and to some extent London. It covers a range of clearly defined devolved powers but does not give the devolved governments direct involvement in areas of reserved powers. On the other hand, shared rule:

“refers to the participation of sub-state nations or regions in decision-making processes at the centre, for example through territorial representation in the national parliament or through intergovernmental forums which allow sub-state governments to participate in or co-decide national policies.”

In considering a different structure for the UK which takes account of the changes since 1999, our starting point must be the three nations and Occupied Ireland. We must assume that the governments of Wales and Scotland would continue in a federal system, occupied territories in Ireland should be reunified, but what would be done about England? Of course, it will be up to the people of England to decide what the most suitable structure is for them but bearing in mind the earlier point about structures shaping the outcome, we need to consider the likely outcome of various proposals. If powers are devolved to English regions it must be on a very different basis to that favoured by Labour and the Tories where undemocratic, Mayor led City regions will compete to attract external investment.

Leaving England as one large unit has implications for the other nations. The role of the City of London is central to British economy. Even with greater fiscal autonomy to the devolved administrations, the English economy and its fiscal strategies dictate the economic strategies of devolved areas. It is hard to imagine that a federal structure could survive the dominance of a single English unit.  

We should then argue for the equivalent of parliaments in the regions of England, despite probably a long way from such an idea being welcomed, particularly if all that electors see is another layer of government with the costs involved and more discredited bureaucrats. The case must be made that more power to the regions can begin to challenge the dominance of the City of London and it would give them real powers to decide on economic priorities locally.

To say that federalism is an obvious solution to a fragmented state does not begin to deal with the complexity of what this means in practice. It is crucial to find the correct balance between retaining central powers to protect the human and economic rights of all citizens, while at the same time devolving powers to national level.

Radical redistribution

Retaining the ability to redistribute wealth is essential for economic justice. There is a danger that arguments for autonomy gain public support based on the case that the region would be wealthier if it kept the whole of the revenue it raised rather than sharing with less wealthy areas. We must avoid the approach adopted by some supporters of Catalonian autonomy who argue that because it is the richest area in Spain it should not have to subsidise the rest of the country. Regardless of the individual wealth produced in Wales, Scotland and England we should be arguing the case for redistribution of wealth both geographically across the Britain, especially from the City of London, and within Wales.

A federal system should retain the ability to redistribute wealth and this should be based on need. Although complex it is not impossible to identify a series of criteria based, for example, on local economic development, employment, poverty, rurality, ageing population, morbidity etc that could be used to assess the different levels of need across the nations and regions of Britain. Other Federal arrangements have arrived at ways of distributing resources between regions or provinces of differing needs.

For example, Canada has federal, provincial and municipal taxes. Federal taxes are the same rate across Canada, but both the Provisional and Municipal taxes vary. The first tranche of personal taxation is collected by the Federal Government. Once that is deducted the Provinces collect taxes which vary considerably from Province to Province. Wealthy Provinces such as British Columbia have relatively low levels of taxation and are less progressive than in other Provinces.

In order to supplement the Provincial taxation Canada has a system of equalisation of fiscal capacity which was adopted in 1982 and is enshrined in the Constitution. This enables the Government to compensate for fiscal disparities among provinces. Equalisation payments enable less prosperous provincial governments to provide their residents with public services that are reasonably comparable to those in other provinces at reasonably comparable levels of taxation. It is described as follows: “the broad goal of these programs and their successors has been to foster more equality among Canada’sregions by transferring funds, via the tax system, from the richest provinces to those that are less well off.

The purpose of the program was entrenched in the Canadian Constitution in 1982:

“Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.” (Subsection 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982).

Equalization payments are unconditional – the receiving provinces are free to spend the funds according to their own priorities and the Government of Canada is required to ensure Equalization continues to grow in line with the economy. Redistribution is needed not just between the nations and regions it also must be within them. It is essential that there is a mechanism for a needs-based redistribution not just UK wide but within Wales.

Where next?

Mark Drakeford, Leader of the Welsh Labour Party, and his predecessor, Carwyn Jones, have long been proponents of a Constitutional Convention, but nothing has ever materialised. There is a danger that decentralisation is easy to promise, but often falls when the body giving up power finds it hard to let go. Power is finite and if you give it away you inevitably have less. This applies as much between the Welsh Parliament and local government as it does between Westminster and Cardiff.

There is a credible alternative which is far more radical than the timid stance of Welsh Labour or Plaid Cymru. It is an alternative which recognises that with ownership comes power and that forms of popular ownership have a part to play across the economy but in certain strategically important sectors in particular: like steel and transport, energy and communications. An alternative which recognises that the economy should be democratic, and one where decision making is accountable, working people through their trade unions have a much greater share of the power at each level, and so marginalised interests in the economy not least women, are given a real opportunity to exert influence in economic decision making. If we truly want an economy planned according to community need rather than ran ragged by market forces, then bold steps must be taken. If previous generations had not been prepared to take on vested interests and challenge raw economic power, the NHS would not have been created and the mines and the railways would not have been taken into public ownership.

In arguing the case for a progressive form of federalism, it should make clear we are not seeking yet another tier of government that becomes increasingly out of touch with the people it represents. It is not so much constitutional change that we are arguing for, but rather political change. That can’t be legislated for; it will have to be built from the ground upwards and almost certainly will have to be fought for against the self-interests of those who benefit from the present structure in Wales and the other nations of Britain.

Nathan James, is a member of the YCL’s Wales branch

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