James Maxwell: Evolving after devolution

THE SNP is close to an independence referendum; Plaid Cymru is still to get out of the starting blocks – local dynamics have a huge impact on nationalist sentiment, writes James Maxwell.

The Welsh Assembly was created in 1998, but devolution has not led to a push for independence. Picture: Rob Norman
The Welsh Assembly was created in 1998, but devolution has not led to a push for independence. Picture: Rob Norman

The year 2007 was a good one for nationalist parties in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. In addition to the SNP winning control of the Scottish Parliament for the first time, Sinn Fein entered into a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont and Plaid Cymru formed a coalition administration with Labour in the Welsh Senedd.

Since then, the SNP has secured the right to stage a referendum on independence for Scotland, while Sinn Fein has consolidated its support north of the Irish border and enjoyed a surge of popularity south of it. By contrast, Plaid Cymru’s progress has all but reversed.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

At the 2011 devolved elections, Plaid lost votes on both the constituency and regional ballots, reducing its tally of Assembly seats from 15 to 11 in a chamber of 60. The reassertion of Labour’s dominance over the Welsh political landscape, coupled with an unexpected Conservative revival, pushed Plaid into third place – its worst result in the devolved era.

This defeat led to the resignation of long-term leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, and his replacement by Leanne Wood, 40, a former probation officer with pronounced socialist and republican sympathies.

Wood has sought to breathe new life into her beleaguered party, but there is no disguising the extent of the challenge it faces: surveys consistently suggest well under 15 per cent of Welsh people back a formal split from the rest of the UK. Nonetheless, Wood believes the SNP’s success represents a golden opportunity for Welsh nationalism.

Speaking to me recently from her Cardiff office, she said: “We’ve called for a constitutional convention to be held after the [Scottish] referendum. It should be as open as possible. It shouldn’t rule out any options. But whatever happens next year, things will change fundamentally.”

Even if Scotland does leave the UK, Wood acknowledges it will take at least a generation to persuade Welsh voters of the merits of independence –
a position which suits Plaid’s gradualism. Central to Wood’s strategy is strengthening the Welsh economy, which has been chronically weak since the 1980s.

She said: “Our economic situation is the reason support for an independent Wales is not as widespread as it is for an independent Scotland. We’ve been in decline for three decades now. The task is to get to the point where nobody can say, ‘You can’t afford it’.”

The economics of independence have not been explored as thoroughly in Wales as they have in Scotland, but debate in the two countries follows a similar pattern. For instance, a common argument of Welsh unionists is that Wales receives substantially more in public spending from Westminster than it generates in tax, although – as the nationalists are quick to point out – there is no Welsh equivalent of Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland, which makes it difficult to establish an accurate picture of the national balance sheet.

Yet doubts over the economic viability of an independent Wales have done little to dampen the Welsh public’s enthusiasm for greater autonomy. In 2011, Wales voted in favour of giving the Senedd primary law-making powers, freeing Cardiff from the requirement to apply for a Legislative Competence Order from Westminster before it can enact legislation.

In this respect, Wales’ experience of home rule has mirrored that of Scotland’s, albeit on a smaller scale. Devolution may not have radically altered attitudes towards independence, but it has laid the groundwork for more devolution. As in Scotland, the real battle has been over which side – nationalist or unionist – controls the devolutionary agenda. So far, Welsh unionists have found it easier to maintain control than their Scottish counterparts.

There are a number of explanations for this, including the absence in Wales of a distinctive institutional framework which nationalists could present as the basis of a separate Welsh state and, of course, the lower baseline of support for secession.

The decisive factor, however, has been Welsh Labour’s willingness to differentiate itself from the Labour Party in London. In 2000, Alun Michael, a Tony Blair appointee, was deposed as first minister (or secretary, as the post was called then) for Rhodri Morgan, the preferred candidate of the party’s grassroots. Morgan went on to deliver a speech attacking Blair’s programme of public service modernisation and pledging to put “clear red water” between his administration and the London government.

The perception that Welsh Labour was more than merely a satellite of British Labour chimed with an increasingly assertive sense of Welsh national identity, which in turn worked to limit the appeal of Plaid Cymru at a time of growing popular discontent with the New Labour project.

Conversely, Scottish Labour’s revolt against Blairism was short-lived. When Henry McLeish attracted media criticism over an expenses scandal in 2001, he found himself isolated within the Labour MSPs group at Holyrood. One reason his colleagues failed to back him was that he had recently defied Blair over the issue of free personal care for the elderly. Following McLeish’s departure, the post of First Minister was handed to a more compliant substitute, Jack McConnell. A few years later, a resurgent SNP was able to capitalise on the perception that McConnell hadn’t lived up to Scots’ aspirations for their new parliament.

Conscious of Labour’s experience in Scotland, Carwyn Jones – Rhodri Morgan’s successor – has been eager to stay abreast of Welsh aspirations. Jones has joined Wood in calling for a constitutional convention to examine ways of making the British political system more responsive to the needs of the Celtic fringes. One of his suggestions is for the House of Commons “to be balanced by a new upper house with equal representation from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland”.

Jones adopted this proposal from Conservative AM David Melding, the deputy presiding officer of the Welsh Assembly, and one of the UK’s foremost advocates of federalism.

Melding told me: “A federal approach would apportion sovereignty between the home nations at one level and the UK state at another, so the same rules would apply to all parts of the country. You couldn’t then argue that Scotland and Wales were second-class members of the UK.”

Without far-reaching reform of this sort, Melding fears Scotland’s departure from the UK will be hastened, leaving Wales facing what he calls an “immediate existential challenge”. He said: “It would be a very, very junior partner in any continuing union. It would be difficult to see how Britishness could be projected. Independence would become a more feasible proposition to some [Welsh] people.”

The belief that Scottish independence could trigger a separatist domino effect across Europe – starting with Wales (or perhaps even Northern Ireland) then spreading out to Catalonia and the Basque Country – appears to have grown in prominence among unionists of late. Its most enthusiastic exponent is Lord George Robertson, who envisions a Europe “Balkanised” by an independent Scotland’s entry into the European Union.

But the theory overlooks one key point: ultimately, nationalist movements operate according to their own specific, local dynamics, even when they exist in close proximity to one another. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the contrasting fortunes of Plaid Cymru and the SNP over the last five or six years.

James Maxwell is a London-based Scottish political journalist