It is true that the Labour Party delivered devolution in Wales. However, it was a devolution borne of pragmatism; its development since 1997 has been painfully slow, with primary law-making powers arriving only in 2011 and limited tax-raising powers in 2017. Devolution has often been used to further political goals instead of provoking meaningful theoretical debate; the temptation to dismiss the concept of ‘nationalism’ all too prevalent. The British state is no neutral arbiter nor does it represent the only mechanism by which socialism can be achieved; the concentration of power among an entitled elite largely in the South East of England, the continuing influence of the monarchy, the failure to decentralise power and redistribute wealth in any meaningful way all indicate the need to recognise the British state as highly undemocratic and an increasingly hostile instrument to achieving positive change. We cannot pin all of our hopes on achieving a UK Labour victory; the Welsh Government’s budget has been squeezed considerably through more than a decade of austerity and we must seek to become less financially reliant on the UK Government for our income.
The time for ambivalence in this area has long passed; if the rising movement in favour of independence in the form of a cross-party campaign was insufficient, the way in which the UK Government has behaved towards the Welsh Government during the coronavirus pandemic and its blatant power-grab in the form of its Internal Market Bill means that the divide between a progressive, socialist agenda set in Wales and the actions of the decidedly hostile and divisive Tory government in Westminster bring these concerns into sharp relief. What happens in Scotland will also be of critical importance; if the Scottish National Party wins an overall majority in their elections in 2021, another independence referendum, this time with a different result, will have a monumental impact on the future in Wales. There will always be other policy areas to consider, but the reaction to Brexit up to today’s coronavirus pandemic has shown that the Welsh public are ready to engage in meaningful constitutional debate.
At the same time, we must remain alert to the fact that Brexit may have been one of several catalysts for growing support for, or curiosity about, Welsh independence, but some have drawn radically different conclusions. The 2016 Senedd elections saw representatives elected for the first time with a hostility to devolution, representing a vocal minority in Welsh society that professes a conservative populism, including anti-state and anti-immigration sentiment. These divisive undercurrents have not gone away; it is up to progressive forces to stem the tide of racial and societal hatred and discrimination, and Welsh Labour must seek to lead the charge through meaningful engagement on key constitutional questions driving concerns around democratic deficits and feeding into hostile agendas.
Welsh Labour must once again take the political lead and pursue a new way forward for the UK constitutional settlement, mapping out a future for a UK that will sustainably enable progressive and socialist agendas. In so doing, we must remain true to the principle of self-determination and open to the prospect that such a change may not be achievable and that more radical measures, including independence, may yet prove necessary.
Welsh Labour should therefore commit to the following: