John Osmond argues that sooner or later Wales will have to choose between a re-negotiated British structure or independence within the EU
In a wide-ranging speech at Westminster last week (reported here) former Assembly Presiding Officer Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas illustrated once more why he is at odds with many in present day Plaid Cymru. He declared himself an “out and out federalist”.
In an interpretation of Welsh history that may be correct, but will not be music to the ears of his colleagues in Cardiff Bay, he said there has never been a project for Welsh independence:
“Revisionist nationalists always seem to imagine Wales as always having been a people’s republic… But the principality of Wales is not a creation of Norman military ascendancy. It is the creation of Welsh leaders themselves and that project was always federal in nature.”
This is an argument that goes back to Plaid’s conference in 2003 when for the first time the party formally adopted independence as its unambiguous constitutional aim. Why did it take so long for it to reach this position – after all it was founded in 1926 – and why is it still an issue today?
One reason is that the party’s founders were reluctant to use the term ‘independence’ for essentially moral reasons. Saunders Lewis, the party’s founder set out the essential position in his formative lecture at the 1926 Summer School when he argued the case for Welsh freedom rather than independence:
“First of all, let us not ask for independence for Wales. Not because it is impractical, but because it is not worth having. I have already shown that it is materialistic and cruel, leading to violence, oppression and ideas already proved to be bad. The age of empires is fast passing, and afterwards there will be no meaning or value in independence. Europe will return to its place when the countries recognise that all subjects and dependent …”
The lecture is worth revisiting in full, but this is the gist and it remained influential for the rest of the century. Unlike the SNP which adopted ‘independence’ from the start, the term Plaid Cymru used was ‘self-government’. After Britain voted to join the Common Market in 1975, this mutated to ‘full national status’ within the institutions at Brussels and Strasbourg. In the run-up to the first Assembly elections in 1999 the party’s then leader Dafydd Wigley famously said:
“We haven’t used the term full independence or independence at all at any stage in our history. We have used the term self-government and self-government within the European context as we believe that is the relevant term. We don’t believe any country is independent in the 21st Century.”
So what accounted for the break in this underlying philosophy just a few years later? The answer, in a word, is Europe. From the mid-1980s when, led by former opponent Dafydd Elis-Thomas as it happens, Plaid Cymru became reconciled with membership, the idea of Wales’s place in the European Union, became central to its thinking. In those days this project was expressed in terms of the idea of a ‘Europe of the Regions’. A self-governing Wales could join with other emerging ‘Regions’ such as the Lander in Germany, the Basque Country and Catalonia in Spain, and Flanders in Belgium to crate a patchwork of regionalism that could form the democratic bedrock of a united Europe.
That, at any rate, was the idea, and it reached some kind of persuasive peak in 1994 when the Committee of the Regions was established as part of the Maastricht Treaty that recalibrated the institutions of the EU. The Committee was supposed to be part of the democratic structures of the ERU. Some envisaged that it might evolve into an upper chamber for the European Parliament.
But it has proved a great disappointment for those who invested such hopes. Part of the reason is that is that its 350plus members, appointed to reflect the fact that about three-quarters of EU legislation is implemented at local or regional level, are not a voice for regional governance as such, but generally local government. This led to the creation of a separate organisation, RegLeg – the EU Regions with Legislative Powers – which, for a time Rhodri Morgan was an enthusiastic exponent when he was First Minister. However, this has no formal place within the EU structure.
In the early 2000s this lack of effective representation at the EU level led the German Lander which previously had been in the European regional vanguard, to put more effort into ensuring their interests were better represented in the overall national position. By then it had become obvious that only independence could equip a Region or aspirant country to full membership of the EU Council of Ministers and Parliament. It was noteworthy that in the enlargement that occurred in May 2004, of the ten states that joined the EU, five had populations smaller than Wales – Malta (0.4 million), Cyprus (0.8 million), Estonia (1.4 million), Slovenia (2 million), and Latvia (2.4 million).
Today there is a putative new enlargement process underway, known as ‘Enlargement from Within’. Candidate states include Catalonia, Flanders, and Scotland.
So that is the main reality that drove Plaid Cymru thinking at its conference in 2003. Significantly, the case for it was led at the time by Adam Price, now likely to enter the National Assembly in 2016. Looking back some time later he acknowledged that it would be some while before Welsh independence became a realistic prospect, but said Plaid should not shy away from it:
“Quite simply if we don’t talk about our ultimate aim, then our political opponents will. Better for us to lead the debate than constantly be on the defensive. Secondly, we need to create a new generation of nationalists. We do that through presenting clear arguments as to why our vision of an independent Wale offers the greatest opportunity for social progress and prosperity.”
In his speech last week Dafydd Elis-Thomas aligned himself with Carwyn Jones in calling for a constitutional convention to put federalism and a new partnership between the nationals of the UK on the agenda. However, as he acknowledged, a problem was persuading England to join in. His concern was that the mood in England was firmly against federal options that were associated with all things European. As he put it:
“What worries me is if the English bulldog barks up the wrong tree because England is a great European nation which once had lands in France… People in England – and I don’t know how we do it – need to see England again as a European nation which is no longer an empire.”
It seems to me that this debate encapsulates a choice that sooner or later Wales will have to confront – whether to seek our constitutional future within a re-negotiated British structure, or as an independent country within the European Union. There is no doubt that most of us would prefer to have some combination of both. But it seems unlikely that the English will allow that to happen.