Ignored, neglected and patronised, Wales may now prompt as much change to the UK as has Scotlandby Kenneth O Morgan / October 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
The years 2014 and 2015 bring with them a tsunami of anniversaries. This year we commemorate the First World War; next year it is the Magna Carta. Scotland, of course, celebrated the anniversary of victory over the English at Bannockburn by voting decisively against becoming an independent state. But another historic landmark in the remote Celtic fringe has been totally ignored: the 600th anniversary of the ending of Owain Glyndwr’s uprising in Wales in 1414-15. Wales’s charismatic national hero is forgotten. He is as mythic a figure as King Arthur. No Welsh Braveheart popularises his memory, while his burial-place is unknown.
Nevertheless, a creative new phase in the projection of Welsh identity may yet emerge from the ashes of defeat for the cause of independence in Scotland. The preservation of the Union there, along with the pledges wrung from panicky British party leaders for greater “devo-max”-type powers for the Scottish parliament, has implications for Welsh devolution. The Welsh people voted for it by the very narrowest of margins in 1997, and its early years aroused more cynicism than enthusiasm in the public. Over the past seven or eight years, however, since the Government of Wales Act of 2006, and thanks in great measure to Rhodri Morgan’s dynamic leadership as First Minister, devolution has become a settled and accepted feature of Welsh life. The voters have expressed their approval in opinion polls, as they did in a subsequent referendum in 2011, endorsing by a two-thirds majority primary legislative powers for the Welsh assembly. That body has not set the Cymric world alight, but there is recognition now of the merits of local decision-making and local accountability. And even within the most traditionalist elements of the Welsh Labour Party, there is acceptance of a sort.
Perhaps, therefore, the prolonged Scottish debate, with all its vibrancy and civil engagement, presages a new dawn for Wales, and the prospect, within the wider constitution-making that will follow the vote in Scotland, of rekindling the enthusiasm for devolution that inspired Welsh citizens in the aftermath of the 1997 referendum. For me and for many others in Welsh public life, it certainly revives the vision of the future that we entertained then.
This would be a major change. Over the centuries, Wales has tended to be ignored by the rest of Britain, and it has always lagged behind Scotland. This marginal role is not surprising. Wales, unlike Scotland, never achieved statehood. It is the product of an act of conquest, not an Act of Union. Whereas Scotland retained major institutions of its own after 1707—Church, judicature and national education—Wales had nothing distinctive to show. The last vestiges of distinctively Welsh legal institutions vanished with the end of the popular Courts of Great Sessions in 1830. Thereafter, the Home Office and the Court of Chancery made no distinction between Wales and England.
In the 20th century, Welsh nationalism was always feebler than its Scottish counterpart. The Scottish Office was re-created in 1885; the Welsh Office, a much more modest affair, emerged unobtrusively in 1964. The Scottish parliament, created after a referendum in 1997, enjoyed wider reserved powers and some potential control over taxation; the Welsh assembly had only limited, conferred powers and its government was seriously under-funded. Not until 2011 did the assembly in Cardiff finally acquire the ability to pass primary legislation, and then only after a referendum.
Such national consciousness as has existed in Wales since the mid-19th century has attracted less attention than the Irish or Scottish varieties because it has rarely been focused on self-government. It has been more subtle than that. Wales has been far more tranquil than Ireland, with no sense of subjugation by an alien ruling class (much of it absentee). There were no violent Troubles or Land War, no famine, no Republican Army, no Welsh Charles Stewart Parnell or Éamon de Valera. The objective of nationally-minded Welsh politicians such as Tom Ellis or the young David Lloyd George in the 1890s was equality within the United Kingdom, not exclusion from it. Scotland, with its institutional distinctivenesss, not to mention its prominence within the British empire, had far more self-confidence, and its nationalist party more support. Plaid Cymru, by contrast, was originally largely preoccupied with the culture of the Welsh-speaking minority. National feeling was aroused not by oppression but by neglect, even contempt. As the entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica once had it, “For Wales, see England.”
Yet a Welsh national agenda of protest and pressure did emerge, in the late-Victorian and Edwardian period. It won its victories through the ballot box, not through terrorism. No blood ran in the streets. National cultural institutions emerged, including the National Museum in Cardiff, the National Library in Aberystwyth, and a federal national university (still a force in the land when I was its Vice Chancellor between 1989 and 1995). After 1900, the national eisteddfod (the Welsh arts and culture festival) acquired new prestige. There was specifically Welsh legislation, starting, characteristically, in 1881 with an act to close the pubs on Sundays (though not in Monmouthshire), an act to set up “county” schools (1889) and, most remarkably, one to disestablish the Church in Wales (1919). A generation of young Welsh patriots, a Liberal elite, including Lloyd George and Ellis, styled itself “Young Wales,” on the model of the nationalist movements led by Giuseppe Mazzini in Italy or Lajos Kossuth in Hungary. They won many victories, but fell well short of home rule. After the First World War, and even more after the Second, demands for any kind of self-government of the sort encouraged by the pioneer socialists in the era of Scotland’s Keir Hardie were buried by a strongly unionist Labour Party and trade union movement, which emphasised class not community. Prime Minister Clement Attlee and his deputy, Herbert Morrison, brushed them aside. Only from the late 1960s, when post-imperial Britain began to look more critically on the centralising authority of Westminster and Whitehall, did national grievances take a more explicitly nationalist form. Since then, the contrast has been dramatic, with the example and stimulus of nationalism in Scotland influencing Wales to a considerable degree. Even in defeat, Alex Salmond may have a greater impact on Welsh national awareness than the mythical Glyndwr ever managed.
The Scottish vote will probably lead to a re-examination of the status and powers of the Welsh national assembly. After the “vows” given to Scotland by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, there will undoubtedly be pressure for the assembly to acquire reserved powers (that is, powers assumed to be devolved to Wales, unless specifically reserved by Westminster), as was called for by the 2012 Silk Commission on devolution in Wales. In Scotland, the late Donald Dewar ensured that reserved powers would be vested in Holyrood from the outset. The Northern Ireland assembly also has them, and it is not clear why the Welsh assembly should not too, and thereby acquire the dignity and stature appropriate to a democratically elected legislature.
This important change would clarify things enormously: it would show clearly where power and decision-making lie, and also make a permanent statement about the authority of the devolved body. It would drastically curtail, if not eliminate altogether, the practice of the former Welsh Secretary, David Jones, of taking the Welsh assembly before the Supreme Court to see whether or not its enactments were exceeding its powers. Interestingly, the government’s Wales bill, now before the House of Lords and due to go into committee stage soon, does not grant reserved powers. It seems, from the government’s muddled explanations, that this results from differences of opinion among Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the coalition. In any event, it is a poor decision, though one should probably be grateful that a leader of the once rigidly unionist Conservative Party is pressing on with Welsh devolution at all. As Samuel Johnson said of women preaching, it is not that it is well done, but astonishing that it is done at all.
Another question, in the wake of the Scottish vote, concerns the financial powers of the Welsh government. The Scots had a positive referendum on these back in 1997; the Welsh have had none. In the interim, the 2012 Scotland Act followed the recommendations of the Calman Commission and provided for a Scottish income tax. Along with stamp duty and landfill tax, the Silk Commission proposed much the same for Wales, although the Wales Office was resistant at first. Now the present Wales bill, commendably, does offer a 10p devolution of income tax (Labour wants 15p), with the block grant to Wales being adjusted accordingly. Since more is now being offered by all parties to Scotland, a demand for a similar provision for Wales might follow. The various party arguments over the financial powers of the Welsh assembly have been somewhat convoluted, with the Tories long sceptical. Labour has cut a somewhat uncertain figure, partly through concern that Wales might lose overall through a reduction in its block grant after £1.6bn of cuts. Wales remains heavily dependent on the public sector, which accounts for 29.3 per cent of employment there. But Welsh Labour must not succumb to the temptation, which the legal scholar Adam Tomkin has detected in Scottish Labour ranks, of favouring the principle of devolution (which Labour did most to promote, after all) but dithering about what devolution is for. A devolved legislature which does not raise the resources that it spends, and has no responsibility for them, is a highly limited one. To reverse the dictum of the American revolutionaries in 1776, the cry now should be, “No representation without taxation.”
On the other hand, Labour is right to demand that income tax devolution should be linked to the ending of the wholly unjust “Barnett formula” for the allocation of public spending to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, a stop-gap invented in 1978 by Joel Barnett, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in James Callaghan’s government. Gerald Holtham of Cardiff Business School once claimed that it has cost Wales dearly in funding (around £300m a year) and would cost its people a further £8.5bn over the next decade. The formula is well past its sell-by date. Its rationale has been shredded not only by Holtham, but also by the House of Lords committee on the topic, which included such luminaries as Nigel Lawson and Michael Forsyth. It has even been condemned by Barnett himself. Both the last Labour government and the coalition avoided taking a proper decision on it for fear of upsetting the Scots (of course the formula leaves Scotland greatly over-funded while it deprives Wales).
The Barnett formula is now unacceptable. That the three party leaders during the Scottish referendum campaign tried to bribe Scottish “Yes” voters by promising to keep it as it is at present is another disgrace, intellectual and moral. The formula should go forthwith, with funding based not on past relativities of population, but on the basis of demonstrable social need. Then the Welsh can rightly call for control of their own income tax, and also decide to vary tax bands in line with perceived Welsh priorities.
But the real financial issue concerns not income tax (which is most unlikely to be increased in a devolved Wales), but borrowing powers. This is especially vital with the Welsh economy still in recovery mode after the closure of all the pits and many of the steelworks after 1979, and despite the attempts of the Welsh government to stimulate high-tech business and manufacturing after the most recent recession. The overall statistics remain sombre. Wales is one of the weakest areas of the British economy at present, with productivity, measured by gross value added, standing at 14.8 per cent below the UK average in 2012. That year, 26.5 per cent of the Welsh working-age population was seen as economically inactive, about 3.5 per cent higher than the British average, while 23 per cent lived in low-income households. Another problem is that the population is distorted by the inward migration of large numbers of retired people from elsewhere in the UK, especially to north and central Wales, which diminishes taxable income while adding to costs of health provision.
The Wales bill fails the economy badly here by granting Wales significantly reduced powers of borrowing, confined to £500m. That sum is quite inadequate to support major and much-needed capital projects, such as the improvement of the M4 in the south, and the A55 in the north. The Silk Commission made a clear case on cost grounds for Wales borrowing from the UK government rather than issuing its own bonds. A metric formula in the bill that favours Scotland and again diminishes Wales is just the latest instance of the dismissive way in which Westminster treats the principality. Rational economic planning and investment in infrastructure in Wales are seriously handicapped.
Demands for stronger powers for the Welsh assembly and government will be one result of the Scottish vote. There are also serious issues about membership of the European Union. Despite some recent progress by Ukip (which presently has one Welsh MEP), the bicultural, semi-colonised Welsh feel more rooted in Europe than do the imperial English. The EU has been good for Wales. The Welsh economy benefits greatly from the single market—150,000 jobs and millions in EU structural funding between now and 2020, according to First Minister Carwyn Jones. The idea of a libertarian human rights agenda being proclaimed by the European Court at Strasbourg arouses less terror in Wales than on the other side of Offa’s Dyke. Occupying the Wales Office in the 1990s, the Eurosceptic John Redwood went down far less in the valleys than the liberal Peter Walker and David Hunt. The idea of a regional Europe, within a framework of multi-layered governance, has also caught the imagination of Welsh intellectuals. Welsh policymakers have been influential in Brussels, notably Hywel Ceri Jones, once Jacques Delors’s right-hand man. Jones’s main achievement, the “Social Chapter” of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, has always been popular in social democratic Wales. The “Motor Scheme,” which brings together Baden-Wurttemberg, Lombardy, Rhone Alpes and Catalonia with Wales in joint programmes (important to me when I headed Wales’s national university), has given the European idea real momentum in business and higher education. (Before the Scottish referendum, many in Wales feared a kind of nightmare scenario in which the UK would first lose the pro-European Scots, and then, riding a Ukip wave in southern and eastern England, vote itself out of Europe.)
There is very little pressure for independence in Wales. No-one will ever call a referendum on that. “Better Together” in a sharing, mutually supportive Union is the prevailing wisdom here. But demands for a basic reconfiguration of relationships within the UK could easily become more powerful. Two think tanks, the Institute of Welsh Affairs and the Bevan Foundation, are currently acting as loud-hailers for them, as is Cardiff’s University’s Centre for Welsh Studies. And just as the Scottish vote will impinge on Northern Ireland and quite likely the English regions, so Welsh assertiveness might add to pressures that could lead towards a federal, or at the very least confederal, Britain.
This would be a historic change. It would abruptly shift the course of British history, which has tended in a unionist direction ever since Welsh lives were sacrificed at Pilckem Ridge and Mametz Wood during the First World War. A very different, looser UK could be about to emerge, more pluralist and less centralist, certainly more democratic.
There are many signs that the political world is responding. The Scottish National Party lost the vote conclusively on 18th September, yet could emerge victorious in the long term. Labour revisionism, as expressed in Jon Cruddas’s important policy review (with Ed Miliband’s encouragement), is moving away from the centralist planning and nationalisation of the postwar period towards a more localist vision of democratic socialism of the sort articulated by RH Tawney and George Orwell, and by party pioneers such as Keir Hardie and George Lansbury. It was Hardie, after all, who proclaimed in 1910 the doctrine of “Y Ddraig Goch a’r Faner Goch,” the “Red Dragon and the Red Flag.” Ramsay MacDonald started off in politics as secretary of the Scottish Home Rule Association.
A Cruddas-inspired Labour policy would look back to the Independent Labour Party rather than the Fabians for its ideological inspiration. On the Conservative side, after decades of Thatcherite centralism and unionism, Cameron has gone to Cardiff and proclaimed, “I believe in devolution.” The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, under the chairmanship of Graham Allen, is now considering A New Magna Carta? submitted by a research group at King’s College London setting out a written, codified British constitution.
So Britain may be on the verge of constitutional change more thoroughgoing than that enacted by the important, though piecemeal, reforms of Tony Blair’s government after 1997. After centuries as subjects of the Crown, the British may actually be on the verge of becoming citizens. The break-up of the UK, predicted by some writers in Prospect, need never happen. More likely is a surge of enthusiasm for popular sovereignty, as already proclaimed in the SNP’s proposed Scottish constitution and by Gordon Brown in his inspirational anti-separatist book, My Scotland, Our Britain, in which he called for a constitutional convention.
Wales, for so long marginal territory, neglected and patronised, should be an important player in that process. Parnell observed of his native Ireland that you cannot set bounds to the advance of a nation. Wales may prove to be another illustration of his words. Dylan Thomas once summed up Welsh nationalism in three words, two of which were Welsh nationalism. But, in yet another anniversary, the great man’s centenary year, the laugh may now be on him. Just possibly, the message of the future might turn out to be “For Wales, see Scotland.”
Kenneth O Morgan’s book From Revolution to Devolution is published by University of Wales Press