This essay by Gwynoro first appeared in the booklet: ‘Towards Federalism and Beyond’.
The questions on the future of the UK Union have been gathering a strong head of steam over the last three years. Discussions had particularly ‘kicked-off’ following the outcome of the Scottish Referendum in September 2014, and the promises made by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, as well as leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties to devolve further powers to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. These, more or less, have been now enacted. Then there was the Wales Act 2017 which caused a significant amount of controversy, particularly in relation to the reserved powers aspect and defeats in the House of Lords over amendments that would have transferred responsibilities concerning transport, policing, broadcasting and water to the Senedd.
Intermixed with these issues have been the 2015 General Election and the EU Referendum of 2016. Both of which, for differing reasons, provided unexpected results, with the latter leading to the resignation of David Cameron and the emergence of Theresa May as Prime Minister. The outcome of the EU Referendum particularly focussed the minds of devolutionists, federalists, and many in favour of independence alike, on potential future governance models for the UK Union, or even its prospects for survival, with several significantly thorny Brexit issues appearing centre stage. These included the High/Supreme Court hearings and the enactment of Article 50.
Many powerful voices joined the constitutional debate at this time, most notably the First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the much experienced Lord David Owen and, a long time supporter of a powerful Welsh Parliament, Lord Elystan Morgan. The momentum was such that the Labour Party came out strongly in favour of a Constitutional Convention, as witnessed by an event held at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff in late-March 2017. Additionally, Jeremy Corbyn spoke in support of a Convention at the Scottish Labour Party Conference in February 2017 and has reaffirmed his stance more recently.
In Wales, an emerging non-partisan and all party group called Yes Cymru produced a booklet on Welsh independence. I was pleased to have been asked to speak at three of their rallies in Carmarthen, Cardiff and Swansea over the last year or so.
Then, in spring 2017, the Prime Minister whilst breathing the beautifully rarefied mountain air of Snowdonia one weekend, emerged in London on the Monday morning to announce a snap General Election – despite having promised publicly on at least five occasions not to do such a thing. Theresa May was enticed by an opportunistic calculation, founded on a lead of 20 percentage points in the polls, a seemingly dysfunctional Jeremy Corbyn, and a considerably weakened Liberal Democrat party. Indeed for several months prior to early-May 2017, it was forecasted that the Conservatives would have a 100-seat plus majority in Westminster following any snap election, with the Labour party annihilated. Also, in late-April 2017, a sensational poll conducted by YouGov for ITV and Cardiff University projected the Tories as winning 20 Westminster seats in Wales, Labour 16, Plaid Cymru 3 and Liberal Democrats 1. The lure of temptation was far too great for our Prime Minister to ignore.
So after a century of Labour hegemony in Wales, it looked for a few weeks during spring 2017 that we were heading towards a political earthquake of serious magnitude in nature, which would have been an enormous culture shock to the body politic of this country. But as Harold Wilson often used to say, ‘a week is a long time in politics,’ or to quote Harold Macmillan when asked about what shapes political fates, ‘events dear boy, events.’
Without recounting the full extent of the fateful events that transpired, the ‘strong and stable’ Theresa turned out to be ‘weak and feeble’ whilst the seemingly ineffective Jeremy became transformed with substantial crowds attending his rallies. I had not witnessed such gatherings since the 1950s when politicians like Aneurin Bevan spoke in public. Theresa May’s performance was the poorest, if not the most disastrous, by any Tory leader in my memory, other than Sir Alec Douglas Home in 1963 and William Hague in 2001. Jeremy Corbyn on the other hand was a revelation, a man inspired, totally renewed from the inept and ineffective performer he had been at Prime Minister’s questions time over the preceding year. He was in his element as a superb campaigner, attracting unprecedented numbers of people to his meetings, wherever held across the country. Incidents such as the Conservative manifesto debacle and the appalling terrorist attacks also played a part in forming the electorate’s views.
The final outcome was effectively a hung Parliament until the Tories were saved by the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party. Now the headlines and sub-plots of that election is testing the commitment, determination and mettle of all devolutionists, federalists and other interested stakeholders engaged in the UK constitutional debate.
In the lead-up to that General Election, during early-May 2017, an opinion poll was conducted by YouGov for Yes Cymru on the question of independence for Wales. It articulated a staggering result which was absolutely unexpected in substance, and quite probably unwelcome in many political circles. The findings received little publicity at the time, being lost and buried in the ‘hurly burly’ of the ongoing UK election campaign.
This poll painted a political picture that went against all opinion and public attitude surveys in Wales since establishment of the Welsh Assembly (Senedd) in 1999. As brief background, in the last two decades, backing for independence has registered between 3% and 6% on average. In fact, the annual BBC Wales poll conducted in March 2017 by ICM revealed the following levels of forecasted support for various scenarios of Welsh governance—independence at 6%; increased Senedd powers 44%; same powers 29%; fewer powers 3%; and abolishing the Senedd 13%.
However, this survey of 1000 respondents – which incidentally is the usual sample size for opinion polling – conducted by YouGov on behalf of Yes Cymru, and published in May 2017, showed that 26% of the Welsh population favoured independence, with the percentage increasing to 33% if the then predicted Conservative majority actually materialised! Labour voters turned out to be relatively supportive of independence. Plaid Cymru voters, as expected, were too. But more importantly, the 18 to 49 age groups were found sympathetic to the prospect, which raises real questions about the future status of Wales within the UK. On removing, from the calculations, those respondents who registered as being undecided, the poll identified 47% of Labour voters backing independence (of which 23% were strongly in favour); 64% Plaid Cymru; 33% Lib Dems; 15% Conservatives; and 18% UKIP.
Two other interesting observations were highlighted. The first was that 28% of Plaid Cymru voters were against independence. The second concerned that middle band of party supporters whose vote might be ‘up for grabs’ during any referendum campaign on the issue, with their extent ranging from 8% for both Labour and Plaid Cymru to 18% of Lib Dems.
So, post-General Election 2017, where are we in relation to exploring the future of the UK Union? Will the progressive forces now unite to move the agenda forward? At the heart of this debate is the question of what will Labour do? Any major constitutional reform cannot happen without its serious involvement and active participation in discussions. Brexit and the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, unless radically amended, will have significant implications for the present devolution settlement. One area of particular concern to Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh is what will happen to those powers and responsibilities now delegated from Brussels, through Westminster, to the devolved administrations on matters such as agriculture and rural affairs. Will they be taken back up the chain to London in time thus completely undermining the arrangements in place?
Here in Wales we have an added matter to contend with, and that is the manner in which Wales is perceived and reported through the media—not only across the UK but especially in our own backyard. Many commentators have written extensively about the impact of the ‘information deficit’ existing due to the inadequate news coverage of Welsh issues in our media, and the ensuing challenges faced. For instance, the level of reported interest shown in Wales for the 2016 EU Referendum (82%) was considerably higher than that for the 2016 Senedd election (59%), both of which were held only a month apart. Without doubt, one of the major reasons for this difference was the nature and content of news reporting in Wales, including which sectors of that medium predominate in our country. When tuning into the latest UK political news, its substance is often entirely focused on events surrounding the Westminster ‘village.’ This, of course, is quite natural, but unfortunately during times of devolved elections in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, such an intense preponderance and saturation of Westminster information, clearly impacts on people’s exposure to the key campaign issues and political choices presented closer to home.
Put straightforwardly, the people of Wales are not regularly exposed to informed news coverage centring on Senedd matters. One of the most striking findings of survey data published by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) in 2015 was the significantly low number of Welsh people identified as frequently reading a newspaper produced in Wales – 5% or fewer. Today, the Western Mail disseminates the most comprehensive handling of Senedd matters, but the ABC survey revealed that fewer than 4% regularly read the paper. Further, when respondents were asked to name their main newspaper, only 1% selected The Western Mail. The Daily Mail, by contrast, is almost ten times more likely to be acknowledged as the main daily read, being consumed habitually by four times more people in Wales than The Western Mail.
Broadcasters in Wales, on the other hand, reach a far greater proportion of the population than newspapers. BBC Wales Today is the most widely followed – 37% of people frequently tune in – whilst 17% and 13% regularly follow ITV Wales Tonight and BBC Radio Wales respectively. However, UK-wide programmes are still the main source of reference for news consumption in Wales, with the ABC survey identifying The BBC News at Six or Ten as viewed by nearly 37% of respondents, whilst 30% follow the BBC News channel. ITV’s Evening News or News at Ten, and Sky News are watched less often – 11% and 13% respectively – but still rank as key sources of information relative to coverage produced in Wales. Other regular daily or weekly productions such as Daily Politics, Newsnight, Panorama, Question Time, and the like, compound the situation further in terms of ‘swamping’ any reports delivered through indigenously created programmes.
I have recently come across additional data from the ABC revealing an ever-continuing reduction in the readership of local weekly newspapers and regional dailies. Local weekly newspapers in the UK lost print circulation by an average of 11.2%, year on year, during the second half of 2016. The figures suggest a quickening in the pace of print decline, possibly fuelled by cover price rises, editorial cutbacks and the readership moving to online sources. A redeeming feature is that nearly every regional newspaper website audited by the ABC recorded strong growth in the second half of 2016.
As already mentioned, in late-March 2017, the First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones AM, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and ex-Deputy Prime Minister Lord John Prescott came together to discuss the future of the UK Union in an event held at the Wales Governance Centre in Cardiff. It was an occasion that I was keen to attend for many reasons, including political and personal. One of my first tasks when appointed Research and Public Relations Officer for the Labour Party in Wales during 1969 was to Chair a working group charged to develop the party’s policy towards devolution. Together with Emrys Jones and Gwyn Morgan I jointly prepared the party’s evidence to the Crowther/ Kilbrandon Commission on the UK Constitution. In fact, the content of our submission essentially described a forerunner of the Welsh Assembly, which was established some 30 years or so after the Carmarthen by-election of 1966, and following 8 General Elections and 2 devolution referenda in the intervening time.
Whatever one’s view is of the Blair Governments, it was his administrations that moved forward considerably the devolution agenda for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, since the creation of the Senedd it appears that the Welsh Labour party has been contented to accept its ‘divine right’ as the ‘natural’ party of Government in Wales, albeit if they have had to rely on the support of the Lib Dems for one period and Plaid Cymru for another. Plaid, on its part, has seemingly settled for that limited degree of devolution. Meanwhile, the Conservatives, who had previously only fared occasionally well during Westminster elections in Wales, such as in 1983 and 1992, have found themselves with a sizeable voice in administering the country. Politics is unpredictable because it could be said that the party which has benefited most from the establishment of the Senedd is the Conservatives – the very party which opposed it!
So, does Wales still have a radical electorate today? To what extent does the country actually mirror England and, if so, what has caused this to be the case? Immigration, over decades, from other parts of the UK has no doubt influenced movements in the political landscape, but its extent and impact is deeper than realised. Labour and Plaid Cymru, in particular, have been found ‘sleeping on watch.’ Their inaction, or inertia, has resulted in a significant ‘hidden Tory’ component to Welsh politics by now. But the challenges do not end there. Labour is viewed as having neglected its traditional working class areas, with its once, rock solid, loyal support going ‘on the move’ during the 2016 Senedd election – not to Plaid or Lib Dems, but rather to UKIP!
The economic and industrial structure of Wales has altered significantly in the last quarter of a century, as has the country’s demography – with 30% of the people living in today’s Wales born elsewhere. Indeed, in parts of north-east Wales, the proportion is nearer 50%, and almost 40% in the ‘Welsh heartland.’ Further, 48% of people living in today’s Wales reside within 25 miles of Offa’s Dyke, with 140,000 crossing that border each day for work purposes. The equivalent statistics for Scotland is 4% dwelling within 25 miles of the English border with some 30,000 traversing it daily.
Coinciding with this changing demographic and economic picture, there has been a notable shift in the political composition of the country’s electorate too – nearly 35% of whom favoured centre-right parties in 2016. The growth of UKIP in Wales is hard to accept – a party with its roots firmly grounded in England. However, this development should not really be a surprise when considering the make-up of our news consumption.
The final warning signal for me was the actuality that Wales voted to leave the EU – the very country that has benefited the most from being part of it. Our agriculture, rural economies, tourism, education and business sectors have received considerable investment from Europe, especially less prosperous geographic areas. With England and Wales (albeit by a majority of no bigger than a crowd that fills the Principality Stadium on international day) voting to leave the EU, and Scotland along with Northern Ireland favouring remain, significant constitutional questions for the UK are emerging. Wales has to be careful that it does not simply become an annexe of England in time, possibly in a scenario where Scotland has renegotiated its relationship with the Union, and a new framework is settled and implemented for the island of Ireland.
So we live in tumultuous times with substantial uncertainties, but also opportunities. Wales and its politicians must be vigilant. It cannot be a case of ‘steady as she goes’ any longer. As a people we need to think long and hard about the future direction of the Union, planning for all eventualities. I have not always been a fan of how successive Welsh governments have conducted themselves. Nor have I ever been an admirer of the Senedd’s quality of debates both in standard and substance. The truth is that the Senedd has been hamstrung from the beginning, being devoid of the freedom to act with the effective powers granted the Scottish Parliament. However, those of us who believe in a stronger and more confident, self-governing Wales must advocate that vision more vociferously now than ever.
With the Brexit result, I am convinced that the future lies, at the very least, in a self-governing Wales within a Federal UK, but I also increasingly accept that a strong argument can be made for going even further. The reality of today is that 20 years of devolution has made little difference to Wales’s economic standing within the UK. Our country is near to bottom of the league on several socio-economic indicators.
Out of 235 countries in the world, some 130 of them have populations of around 7 million and under. Of these countries, 100 have fewer than 4 million people and the vast majority are smaller than Wales. Further, 11 of the countries of the 27 in the EU have populations of approximately 5 million or less. 7 of the 11 have fewer people than Wales. In the modern financial, service and technological age, as opposed to the era of heavy industries and large scale manufacturing, the question of a country’s size is no longer a deciding factor in terms of deliberating governance models.
For decades, too many politicians have argued that Wales is either too small or cannot afford to go it alone, markedly because the country would run a significant budget deficit. But so does the UK, with a deficit of some £100 billion a year, carrying a debt of £1.83 trillion. Indeed, a proportion of the £14 billion claimed to be Wales’s presently projected deficit is our share of the money spent on large UK projects such as HS2 and defence (e.g. Trident). What more, revealingly, only about 50 of the world’s 235 nation-states actually run a budget surplus!
Therefore, is there now the political will to advance the national debate on the future of the UK Union?
Will the Labour party re-gather its forces for change and pursue the matter of a Constitutional Convention and a Federal UK? Or has the satisfaction of recently winning an additional 36 seats at Westminster, securing continued control over Wales and achieving a limited but important comeback in Scotland dampened their enthusiasm for reform? The SNP stance for Scotland is broadly clear, but what of Plaid Cymru’s vision for Wales in the next few years? The Brexit situation has already brought into sharp focus the vexed question of the long-term framework for the island of Ireland. Will the Conservatives ultimately accept that they may need to make a strategic comprise on the constitutional question to prevent more serious disunity? Then what of the Liberal Democrats, the party of ‘Home Rule’ with its antecedents stretching back a hundred years? Will they actually manage for once to discuss constitutional change at their conference? In the days of the SDP/Liberal Alliance of the 1980s it was forever on the agenda. I made certain of that.
It is time to move towards a real ‘Senedd’ for Wales…