The Debate the Political Parties should be having

Emrys Roberts calls for all political parties to focus on decentralising political and economic power

All the main political parties in Wales are in the throes of a leadership election.  We are told they must decide where they stand on the left/right political spectrum and whether they should be prepared to enter a coalition with other parties.  But these are tactical issues which should be considered once the parties have agreed their overall strategy.


The really important divide in politics – and in economic activity and social affairs as well for that matter – is not between right and left but between centralisation and decentralisation.  Centralised power, of right or left, needs to use authoritarian methods to maintain its position and it often seeks to both increase and extend its power by interfering in the affairs of other peoples.


In the economic sphere, the enterprise and impetus of individuals can be a galvanising force and be of benefit to the local community, but if the size of the enterprise grows too large it becomes impersonal and the main object of those running it soon becomes improving the dividends of shareholders and the pay-packet of the bosses.  The welfare of the workers and of the local community are very secondary considerations.


Our main concern should be the welfare of both individual people and of the communities which are important to them – from the family through local, regional and national communities to the international community comprising all humankind.  Each one of these levels of community is important for the development of identity and culture and of social cohesion.


The main problem in the world today is that almost everything is over-centralised: the big powers want to become bigger and more powerful and tell other countries how they should  behave and the big commercial enterprises want to straddle the world and outdo all competition. It is of little or no concern to them if that means throwing people out of work or desolating local communities.  No one seems to care at the madness of using vast amounts of energy in exporting produce and manufactured goods all over the world when they could have been made or produced locally.


Globalisation is aimed solely at making more money for those already rich whereas it would be much more beneficial for communities all over the world if they were to have a more balanced economy and be largely self-sufficient where possible with international trade concentrating on specialist goods and services.


So what does all this mean for us in Wales?  


Firstly we should realise that an increasingly centralised power bloc like the European Union is part of the problem, not part of the solution.  Yes, it has thrown a few crumbs of comfort to minorities within the so-called “nation states” (a misnomer if there ever was one!), but we should not be fooled by that.  Its direction of travel is towards an ever more centralised system of government as is quite clear from the Treaty of Lisbon. (How many politicians have ever read it? When I tried to obtain a copy of the original Treaty from the EU offices I was told that they could not let an ordinary member of the public have one.  So much for democracy!


Even after the original treaty was watered down a little, it still gives the EU the power to overrule individual governments in almost all aspects of both domestic and foreign policy.  Some of the more influential leaders, like Macron of France, are quite open about their desire to see a larger and more centralised EU super-state.


The EU did not look kindly on the suggestion that if Scotland voted for independence they should automatically remain in the EU and they have been positively antagonistic to the aspirations of the Catalonians.  In economic matters the EU favours globalisation of capital with all the damage that does to local communities and they have treated Greece in the same way as a loan shark treats people on benefits who need a bit of cash to get by.  


There are increasing signs in many parts of the West that people are beginning to feel disenchanted by a system where all the levers of power – be they political or economic – are wielded by a remote elite who look after their own interests but show scant concern for the rest of us.  This is the feeling that lay behind the Brexit vote in Britain and the vote for Trump in the US. That is not to say that either the Brexiteers or Trump have the answers – they are merely symptoms of the problems that face us.


Politicians today should be concerned with thinking about how we bring political and economic power back home.  It is only then, when individuals and local communities feel that they not only matter but can actually influence the decisions which govern their lives that we can claim to live in a democracy.  No one will have all the answers, of course, but collectively we should begin thinking about these issues and exchange ideas with people in other countries who are beginning to face up to the same problems.


In fact, we in Wales should be well-placed to make a practical contribution to such discussions.  We have a long history of co-operation and of doing things ourselves. The Laws of Hywel Dda in the 10th century, for example, were the most advanced in Europe because they brought together the wisdom of all parts of Wales rather than being imposed from above.


Our education system was based on the circulating schools of Griffith Jones, which helped make Wales the most literate country in Europe in the 18th century.  Our University was established in the 19th century not by royal decree or wealthy patronage as in most other parts of the world but by the “pennies of the workers” and, of course, Welshman Robert Owen is recognised as the father of the world-wide co-operative movement.


A glance at our past contains plenty to inspire us, but what can we do to face up to present day problems?  Here are just a couple of ideas.


First of all we should foster the development of our own entrepreneurs rather than over-dependence on foreign investment. However, once an enterprise reaches a certain size (say employing 50 or more workers) it depends more on effective management than individual impetus and should  be required to convert into a worker-owned co-operative, with representation on its board accorded to suppliers, customers and the local community. A number of small local energy producing concerns are already promoting such undertakings in several parts of Wales with the help of the Triodos Bank.


In Britain we have come to think of co-operatives almost exclusively in terms of customer-owned stores.  Other forms of co-operation flourish in many parts of the world – such as the provision of housing and social care in Canada and industrial co-operatives in Emilia Romagna in Italy where a multiplicity of small co-operatives come together to bid for large construction or engineering projects but maintain their own identity and once the project is completed they seek new partners for other projects requiring a different configuration of expertise.


The ultimate aim should be to abolish the system of stocks and shares – which is little more than a rich man’s casino and gives control of an undertaking to investors rather than the people who work in it.  Investors should benefit from their investment, but should not have control of the undertaking.


Our education system is geared far too closely to the principle of competition – our children are taught to believe they should try to outdo everyone else.  Yet success within a healthy community often depends on effective co-operation. We should encourage co-operative practice between teachers, children and parents in the development of school activities and even of the school curricula and the principles of co-operation and the practicalities of running co-operative enterprises should be taught to all pupils.


These are the kind of ideas all political parties should be discussing.  It would be nice to think we could even be adult enough to discuss such issues on a cross-party basis and be prepared to co-operate with all and sundry who share our views on how to ensure a prosperous and civilised future both for ourselves and for the rest of the world.


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Emrys Roberts is former General Secretary of Plaid Cymru

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