Jonathan Edwards: Devolution as we know it is dead – Where does Wales go next?
THE MOST interesting finding in recent opinion polls on our nation’s constitutional future is the increasing polarisation between independence and those favouring the Senedd’s abolition.
Despite the status quo or more devolved powers being the majority position, the constitutional sands are moving very quickly beneath our feet.
Devolution as a concept is a murky compromise and has benefited all sides of the constitutional debate. Nationalists were able to claim with some justification that by making piecemeal advances in transferring more powers, there was a clear pathway to national advancement. On the other hand, Unionists have been able to claim, with equal validity, that ultimately devolution meant that Wales existed within the British state’s framework.
Three main forces drive the national question towards a binary position between independence or a neutered – or even abolished – parliament.
Firstly Brexit. It is plainly evident that pro-Brexit politicians gave little thought to the impact which leaving the European Union would have on the British State itself.
However, the British establishment never leaves a good crisis go to waste.
Leaving European economic frameworks required the creation of new structures for the British State.
Consequently, the British Government has pounced on every opportunity to put Scotland and Wales into a Westminster straightjacket: even within devolved competencies.
The default position has been to centralise power in Westminster. It’s a position endorsed by the UK Labour party (despite the empty protestations of Labour Senedd politicians). Westminster Labour has always accepted Westminster’s primacy over all corners of the British State.
The intentions of the British Government to neuter our Senedd are clear. For example, Westminster recently passed the Internal Market Act over the objections of Wales and Scotland. Its provisions could render the Senedd toothless.
Any regulations passed by the Welsh Government in devolved areas of competence will be open to challenge under the Act, with the British Government unilaterally able to intervene.
The Devo rhetoric that the British State was some sort of partnership of equals has been shot to bits.
So called ‘Welsh’ Labour’s narrative of multipolar political structures within the UK has been thoroughly exposed for the fantasy it always was.
For the English nationalists driving Brexit, it has become about far more than just leaving the European Union – the reassertion of Westminster dominance and overrule over the Celtic fringe has become an essential supplementary aim.
Needless to say, these open assaults on Welsh democracy has led to a reaction most spectacularly evident by the remarkable growth of Yes Cymru.
The second force driving the debate is the turbo-boosting of the campaigns for Scottish independence and Irish reunification.
People in Wales looking at events in these other parts of the British State see that the status quo is finished and are thinking about what that means for Wales. Many in Wales, I suspect, share the former Frist Minister’s feelings that an England and Wales union has little appeal.
Lastly, political debate in the age of social media inevitably polarises opinion. This applies to all political discourse and not only the national question, of course.
Large coalition political parties and the First Past the Post electoral system are terribly unsuited to the social media age.
Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook provide an invaluable new forum for political engagement. However, as a form of communication, they can undermine the traditional art of compromise. Middle-ground positions please no one as people separate into rival camps.
The traditionalist, gradualist approach no longer satisfies the appetites of nationalist leaning voters and supporters.
As we saw with the Eurosceptic’s hijack of the Tories in Westminster, their Welsh ranks are going through a similar process through the abolitionists’ take over.
When a political question polarises, it leaves the middle ground wholly exposed.
Cue the panicked smoke grenades thrown by the party currently governing in Wales, Labour. Labour don’t want to have to make a definitive choice on the national question.
As a unionist party, it would have to join the Tories, and the party would be destroyed, as has happened in Scotland.
Hence the use of emotional terminology such as ‘home rule’. Labour neglects to admit that they are in no position to deliver it and have no real understanding of what it means exactly. They also know that their bosses in the UK Labour party vehemently oppose placing Wales on an equal footing.
‘Home Rule’ can be delivered only on terms dictated by Westminster.
I have always believed that it is best to make decisions based on the real world instead of a make-believe illusion. If the debate continues to polarise, Labour will have to decide whether it wants to join the real world or not.
The forthcoming Senedd elections could be seismic.
Suppose the numbers result in a Government whose mandate includes putting the national question to the people of Wales. In that case, such a proposition will force Labour supporters to take a position.
It is anyone’s guess what happens after that.
Welsh political independence is now a mainstream part of the political discourse of Wales. If history teachers us one thing, it is that once a country begins yearning for political freedom, it is challenging to put the genie back in the bottle.
Even if events don’t accelerate as I have set out, the long-term trajectory is only going in one direction.
As is the case with Irish unity and Scottish independence, opinion polls may fluctuate. Still, the inescapable fact is that support for independence is strongest amongst the young.
In the short-term, the constitutional question will continue to polarise. As more and more people realise Westminster doesn’t deliver for Wales, the long game favours independence’s forces.
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