With Scotland threatening independence, Labour must develop a fresh approach to Wales

The May government cannot be trusted on devolution


To state the obvious, if enough Scottish voters want Scotland to leave the United Kingdom, it will happen sooner or (more likely) later.  What once seemed fanciful seems now entirely possible.

Let’s be clear: this would be bad for the United Kingdom.  Scotland makes an enormous contribution to the UK and is a strong ally in democratising the way the UK works. We must do all we can to keep Scotland in our family of nations. We will all be worse off if we don’t succeed in that.

A United Kingdom without Scotland raises questions for Wales, and for the Labour Party.

We failed to see the signs in many communities, over many years of deep discontent with the European Union and the globalised, mobile world it represents. We cannot now afford to ignore the challenges which the prospect of a Scottish departure poses.

Where does this leave Wales?

Nationalism in Wales is a timid beast. Bumping along in the polls at around 10 per cent, the core vote for independence is small and, even if Scotland were to leave, a recent poll suggests that this would not change very much.  But let’s not assume that a Great Britain which comprises only England and Wales isn’t going to change the political dynamics.

Theresa May’s government is not committed to devolution. The way they defied the Welsh Government and the House of Lords over the Wales Act gives us a clue, but just watch the negotiations over the ‘repatriation’ — from the EU of powers in devolved areas — to see this government’s centralising instincts. And with five million fewer beneficiaries of devolution if Scotland were to leave, they would hardly become more committed to it.

Our ability to run our own affairs in devolved areas cannot depend on the whim of the UK Government.

Take the economy. For most people, their overriding concern is the chance of a decent job and a reasonable standard of living.  So our test should be: what is the balance of powers that gives Wales the best chance of strengthening its economy and which gives most people a good chance of a decent living.

To conclude its trade deal with the EU, Canada needed the approval of its provinces. Trade relationships are not about Crown prerogative and signing treaties, they are about shaping the economy, shaping the chance people have of a decent living — and Canada’s provinces were indispensable partners in that. Just as Wales and the other devolved nations are indispensable partners within the UK.

This kind of federalism may not work in as imbalanced a state as the UK, but the current devolution settlement is inadequate and unsustainable, and simply tacking on policing, bus regulation and a few other areas, is not going to get us anywhere near what’s required.

We need proper rules for the four constituent parts of the UK to agree, as equal partners, how to regulate issues like the environment and agriculture, when EU rules fall away.  And we need the sorts of powers which would enable us properly to develop our economy through taxation: tax credits for research and development, some corporation tax powers to support industry in strategic areas.

As well as powers, we now need to put our funding on a proper statutory footing — a law which guarantees fair funding to all parts of the UK, enshrining the principle of equitable redistribution based upon need and taking the final discretion out of the hands of the Treasury.

But in the meantime, we need to build on the support for devolution by showing the results it can deliver now. This means being bold in ditching approaches which haven’t worked and the Welsh Government being as creative and visionary as it has ever been.

Where does that leave the Labour party?

The Labour party is a unionist party. But we cannot ignore the dynamics of Scotland potentially leaving the UK.  Calls for the party to ‘split in two’ are a fundamental misreading of the situation. We need to reorganise Labour so that it is better able to separately reflect and serve each of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, while recognising that our UK-wide bonds give us strength.

In Wales we have managed that more successfully than in other parts of the UK. Welsh Labour has done well because we appealed to people who wanted Wales to have a greater say in its own affairs, while remaining in the UK.

But the time has come for us to go further. Welsh Labour, recently acquiring powers to re-write its rules, is updating its constitution to properly reflect how its distinct institutions have developed in recent years.

But we now need a fresh look at making our constitution fit for the future and a good place to start is by having our own Aims and Objectives clause which properly describes what a modern, distinctively Welsh Labour party — as part of the UK Labour family — is about.

We need a debate within the party — members, local parties, trade unions, affiliates, elected representatives — to agree how we can reframe our purposes and objectives as a distinctly Welsh Labour party in a changing UK. We should also reaffirm that the Welsh Labour party is not the party of the Assembly, but is also the party of our members, our councillors, and our Parliamentarians  – that our MPs are in part, the custodians of the Welsh national interest in the House of Commons.

And whether or not there is a distinctly Welsh view on matters of policy isn’t governed by whether that policy area happens to be devolved; it is the product of the political values of the Labour movement in Wales. So we should also develop policy on a Welsh Labour-wide basis not just for currently devolved matters, but also on trade union rights and employment, on tax, on justice.

A Labour Party reimagined in this way will help us secure the kind of United Kingdom we aspire to be — radically decentralised, redistributive, and strengthened in its unity as a result.

Jeremy Miles AM is the Assembly Member for Neath, and is speaking at the Welsh Fabians fringe at Welsh Labour Conference on 25 March on Labour’s Future In Wales.

See: If Sturgeon bids for Scottish independence, Theresa May only has herself to blame

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3 Responses to “With Scotland threatening independence, Labour must develop a fresh approach to Wales”

  1. Alasdair Macdonald

    There are several interesting turns of phrase in this article. Perhaps they might merit a Freudian analysis.

    Why is the word ‘threatening’ used in the headline? I voted YES in 2014 and will do so in the future. I visit London several times per year because I have family there and I get on with their friends. I and my fellow supporters of independence are not threatening anyone. Perhaps it is Mr Miles who feels ‘threatened’ and it would be helpful to understand what that ‘threat’ is?

    Secondly, consider this paragraph:

    “Scotland makes an enormous contribution to the UK and is a strong ally in democratising the way the UK works. We must do all we can to keep Scotland in our family of nations. We will all be worse off if we don’t succeed in that.”

    If Scotland, as part of the UK for 310 years, is just an ‘ally’, where stands the oft repeated Labour mantra of ‘a partnership of equals’ or ‘family of nations’, as he calls it.

    But he describes it as ‘our’ family. Are we Scots, who seem to being presented as somewhat outside, party to the ‘our’?

    And, ‘We will all be much worse off if we don’t succeed in that’.
    It seems here that as a Scot, I am not part of that ‘we’. And, most, importantly, by Scotland becoming independent is the cause of ‘[us] becoming worse off’, what things will be ‘lost’ to rUK?

    In so many statements in the mainstream media and by politicians (including several Scottish Labour MSPs), Scots and Scotland are characterised as ‘subsidy junkies’, ‘whingers, ‘a basket case’, ‘not genetically programmed to run our own affairs’, ‘too wee and not very good’, ‘surviving only of fiscal transfers within the UK (Mervyn King – although he, graciously, stated that, of course Scotland could be an independent country.)’ and more in that contemptuous, derogatory and, indeed, racist vein (I am thinking particularly of the holier-than-thou Guardian.)

    So, if ‘We’ (which does not include us Scots) ‘lose’ Scotland, ‘we’ lose all of this scrounging, which is surely better for rUK?

    Or is it the fact that Scotland is a net contributor to the UK that is the worrying factor? I think that is the unspoken fear which fires the contempt. Taking into account territorial waters Scotland comprises 51% of the UK area. Scotland has most of the UK fishery. Scotland has 25% of EUROPE’s renewable energy potential. There are still vast reserves of oil and gas in the Atlantic waters off Scotland and it is this which underpins the pretty shaky sterling. It was the Labour Government of the 1960s which suppressed the data of the extent of Scotland’s oil potential. It was the Conservatives under Mrs Thatcher and Mr Major who squandered the oil revenue, deindustrialising huge chunks of British industry, destroying trade unions and creating the financial behemoth that is the City, which was the principal player in the crash of 2008. Scotland food and drink industry revenues have reached record levels, and most is from Europe and the rest of the world, not rUK. Scotland has the majority of the UK’s water. Scotland houses the UK’s nuclear ‘deterrent’. (The metropolitan media wanted it somewhere ‘out of the way’, such as 25 miles from Glasgow and its surrounding area with a population in excess of 2 million people. The Pentagon Papers described the Glasgow area as being ‘a zone of total death’ in the event of a nuclear war.)

    So, these are some starters. Perhaps Mr Miles and others, particularly in the ineffective and directionless Labour Party would like to comment.

  2. BSA

    My reaction also Mr Macdonald. Events in Scotland considered only in respect of their impact on ‘our’ Union. The same perspective allows ‘our’ UK government to set up the Scottish government to fail by devolving unworkable taxes – who’d have thought that ‘our’ UK government could act, literally, as the enemy of Scotland. It is a proprietorial view of the UK based on long standing assumptions about the nature of a Union which has always been viewed differently in Scotland.

  3. John H Davies

    As I believe, the threat of Scotland leaving the Union is that it creates a rUK consisting of a strongly English nationalist England, and a Wales with no allies within the union to withstand the natural inclination of that nationalism to incorporate Wales further into the greater England. All that devolution has gained for Wales is likely to be swept away and Wales returned to its former position as a neglected part of upland England. We all remember the statement from the 1960’s ‘Yorkshire will want independence next! – as if Wales was the same as an English county.
    Scotland should and must have independence for the good of Scotland, but Wales must also have a degree of self rule which can preserve the power of its government to satisfy the needs of its people.

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