A threat to the Union

Lord Touhig makes the case for sustaining Welsh representation at Westminster

Wales, more than any other part of the United Kingdom, will be adversely affected as a result of the Bill, currently before the House of Lords, that combines a referendum on the Alternative Vote for Westminster elections with a reduction in Westminster MPs. Wales has just 5 per cent of the United Kingdom’s population but in this Bill Wales will lose 10 parliamentary constituencies. That equates to 20 per cent of the total reduction in the number of constituencies the Government are seeking across the whole United Kingdom.

This is an edited extract from his opening speech in a debate in the House of Lords on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill last week. The full debate, which also included notable contributions from Lord Howarth of Newport, Lord Elystan-Morgan and Lord Kenneth Morgan, can be accessed here. Earlier this week the coalition Government conceded that it would allow limited public inquiries when parliametary constituencies are redrawn. This was enough to give the Bill a Second Reading. However, it needs to pass through all its stages by 14 February to allow the AV referendum to be held at same time as the Westminster and Assembly elections in May.

The Bill will see the number of MPs Wales sends to the Parliament of the United Kingdom reduced by one in four. That is 25 per cent compared with around 7 per cent for the rest of the country. That means fewer MPs than after the great reforms of 1832 when the population of Wales could be counted in thousands.

We are a small nation within a large country but our contribution to our democratic parliamentary life has been far greater than many would think possible for a country of around three million people. Sons of Wales at one time or another have dominated the British political scene. David Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan are but two. Our adopted sons James Callaghan and Michael Foot rose to great offices of state and came to lead their party. From the Conservative Benches the noble Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, changed the course of British politics when he resigned from Mrs Thatcher’s Government. The noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne, became leader of his party. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, the longest-serving Welsh Office Minister who was in office for half the time the Welsh Office actually existed, was responsible for steering through the Welsh Language Act which gave Welsh equal status with English for the first time.

More than 700 years ago, with a population that counted in thousands, 24 Welsh MPs were summoned to Parliament. In those seven centuries, as the population has grown to three million, that number has increased to just 40. Parliament in its wisdom passed the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 and in Schedule 2 it states:

“The number of constituencies in Wales shall not be less than 35”.

This number was based on the unanimous conclusions of the 1944 Speaker’s Conference and the 1986 Act went through Parliament without a Division. In fact, it was supported by all parties. If anything could be said to have support on all sides of the political spectrum it was that Act. Contrast that with the present Bill which was not the subject of a Green Paper, a White Paper or any pre-legislative scrutiny and certainly cannot be said to have widespread parliamentary support. By guaranteeing that Wales should have a minimum of 35 Members of Parliament, recognition was given to the need to make special provision for the small nations in our United Kingdom. With only five per cent of the UK population, Wales needs this sort of provision if we are to play our full role in the multinational British state.

Many people fear that reducing Welsh representation in Westminster by 25 per cent when many aspects of Welsh life, including the ability of the Welsh Assembly to do its job, depend on the Government and Parliament in Westminster, would fuel a further interest in separatism. When the people of Wales voted by a very small margin in 1997 for devolution and the creation of a Welsh Assembly, it was on the clear understanding that this would have no effect on Welsh representation in the British Parliament.

Even after the establishment of a Welsh Assembly, huge areas of Welsh life continue to be determined by decisions of the Government and Parliament in Westminster: everything from pensions, benefits, criminal 

justice and policing, taxation, levels of public expenditure, macroeconomic policy, and defence and foreign policy, will remain the responsibility of the Government and Parliament in Westminster. This will continue to be the case even if the people of Wales vote in the referendum in March to devolve further powers to the Welsh Assembly.

The situation in the United Kingdom, with devolved Administrations in the various nations, is not uncommon around the world. It is common for countries which have a mixture of central and devolved government to exercise positive discrimination in their constitutions to safeguard the smaller, devolved areas. In that way, the strength of the union is made secure. In the United States, California, with 37 million people, sends two senators to Washington-as does Wyoming, with a population of 544,000. Again, it is important for their union.

The smallest state in Germany, Bremen, with a population of 220,000, sends three members to the German Bundesrat, while the largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, with a population of 3 million, sends six. Again, it is important for their union that the smaller regions and nations are protected. Nor should we forget who helped the Germans to devise their constitution after the last war. Representation in the Spanish senate is weighted towards the smaller regions. That also happens in Australia. This is all done because of the need for a strong, central, good union.

The Conservative-led government should wake up to the threat to our union posed by a 25 per cent reduction in the number of Members of Parliament that Wales sends to Westminster. The Conservative Party rightly and for a long time prided itself on being called the Conservative and Unionist Party.

Liberal Democrats, the heirs to Lloyd George, know in their hearts that it is not right to remove 25 per cent of Welsh Members from the House of Commons, with Wales bearing 20 per cent of the total reduction in the number of MPs for the whole United Kingdom. A few weeks ago saw the anniversary of the birth of Lloyd George. He loved Wales, her people and her language, and he would never have done anything to diminish her role in the United Kingdom.

The Government have made a case for special treatment for two parliamentary seats in Scotland, which will not be required to meet their ambition for seats of equal size. It has done the same for the Isle of Wight. Why, therefore, will the Government not consider that there is a case for special consideration for Wales? The Bill proposes that Wales should lose the largest number of MPs in percentage terms of any part of the United Kingdom: 20 per cent of the reduction for the entire country will come from Wales. In the interests of fairness, that cannot be right.

There is another important aspect of Wales that merits special consideration: the Welsh language. In five parliamentary constituencies-Ynys Môn, Arfon, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Ceredigion and Carmarthen East and Dinefwr-Welsh is the first language of a majority of voters. Lewis Baston, a senior research 

fellow with Democratic Audit, has been much quoted in the debates that we have had in the House in recent days. In evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, he criticised the impact that a reduction of 10 seats would have on Welsh-speaking areas. He said:

“The Bill risks severely depleting the representation of Welsh-speaking areas in the UK Parliament”.

Wales is the only part of the United Kingdom where some 20 per cent of the population speak two languages, Welsh and English. Surely that merits special consideration. If special consideration can be given to preserving two parliamentary constituencies in Scotland because of geographical, historical and community factors, surely Wales can be given special consideration. The same historical and community factors exist in Wales, on top of which there is the unique factor of the Welsh language, which is the first language for a majority of people in five parliamentary constituencies. Have the Government given any consideration to the fact that Wales is the only part of the United Kingdom where a second language is spoken by 20 per cent of the population? What thought has been given to ensuring that the sparsely populated areas of Wales are properly represented in Parliament?

Brecon and Radnor, the largest constiotuency in Wales, is another special case. The northernmost tip of that constituency is closer to the north Wales coast than it is to the southernmost tip of the constituency, and the southernmost tip of the constituency is closer to the south Wales coast than it is to the northernmost tip of the constituency. It is a huge area. It is conceivable, if the Bill is not altered, that there could be just two Members of Parliament representing an area from the Welsh/English border in the east to Cardigan Bay in the west: two Members from the Heads of the Valley Road in the south to the borders of Wrexham and the A55 in the north. At a stroke, the long-established community links between MPs and constituents would be lost. Rural MPs in Wales would have to travel great distances to see their constituents, and they would have to travel great distances to see them.We also face the loss of community-based representation across the Welsh valleys.

The Electoral Reform Society carried out an exercise redrawing the electoral map of Wales and reducing it to 30 parliamentary constituencies. In the case of my former constituency of Islwyn, it would put the community of Abercarn in the new constituency of Caerphilly. They are separated by two mountain chains and three rivers. It would put to the community of Cefn Fforest in the new constituency of Merthyr Tydfil, when it is not even in the same county.

Think of the south Wales Valleys as being like a hand. The valleys are the fingers, the palms are the cities of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea. There is movement from valleys to city for jobs, shopping and entertainment. The transport links, rail and road, are from valleys to city. There is very little cross-valley movement.

Throughout this debate, the Government and their supporters believe that fairness in representation in Parliament can be achieved only by constituencies of equal size. Why is that the only definition of fairness that they are prepared to admit to? The Union of the four nations of these islands, which has united us as one country for centuries, recognises that fairness means allowing the smaller nations to have a greater representation in Parliament than their population might justify. That sense of fairness and understanding is the glue that has held our Union together for these past centuries. Ensuring that Wales has at least 35 seats in the Commons will go a long way to protecting that Union.

Lord Touhig was Labour MP for Islwyn from 1995 until his retirement at last year’s general election.

One thought on “A threat to the Union

  1. Why must we protect the Union at all costs? We have been part of is for 500 years, and let’s be honest… it’s not working is it? Wales is consistently sat at the bottom of every league table that exists, and what help do we get?

    Westminster spends on elecrifying english lines, but not welsh lines. They give our government £300M less every year than they would if we were in English region. On top of this, they tell us we can devolve matters, but they won’t transfer the relevent tax revenue?

    I have absolutely no reason to want to protect this Union… if the people of Wales decide enough is enough, then so be it. Let’s not try to preserve something that isn’t working, for the sake of Britain’s status as an imperial world leader.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy