Gwynoro Jones argues a broad based Welsh Constitutional Convention is needed within months
In a previous article, I referred to differing aspects of the various parties’ leadership elections in Wales since November 2017. Certainly, and maybe fittingly given their current, respective weak positions in the Welsh political discourse, the Welsh Liberal Democrats and UKIP elections were both low profile affairs — pretty much ignored by the media. The Welsh Tories received some attention but did not fare substantially better on the airwaves.
Frustratingly, the Welsh Labour leadership contest is presently preoccupied with which voting methods should be used and whether there is space for more than the two candidates already declared. So much is yet to be resolved before substantive debates can even begin there.
The Plaid Cymru contest, on the other hand, is a fully blown, open, vociferous and highly charged affair, which is beneficial for the party. After all, this election will dictate its future direction and positioning, with opportunities to change and freshen significantly its personnel, campaigning style and policy profile to attract a wider base of voters.
There are, as highlighted in my previous article, many questions the party’s membership must face in making their choice of leader, including their stance on independence. This issue has been elevated to near top of the agenda during the contest, which is to be welcomed as Plaid has ignored or played down the debate for decades — certainly after Gwynfor Evans’ time.
Recently, I came across a comparative analysis of how often the SNP and Plaid Cymru have highlighted independence in their various party manifestos since 1997. The SNP referred to it almost 150 times between 1997 and 2017 whilst Plaid Cymru did so on 15 occasions. From 2000 to 2011, a period encompassing Adam Price’s influential time as an MP, and also I suspect an active organiser of campaigning, Plaid Cymru mentioned independence only five times in its manifestos!
Last week, as part of the leadership contest, Adam highlighted his plan for moving towards the ultimate aim of a referendum on Welsh Independence by 2030, – a plan which I did not find particularly ambitious, inspiring or realistic as a strategy. I have a perception that Leanne more or less agrees with this approach. It is another example of why I tend towards the opinion that there is little point in Plaid Cymru members replacing Leanne Wood with Adam Price. In reality they are ‘birds of a feather’.
Adam’s stated plan depends entirely on Plaid Cymru being a more dominant, if not paramount, force in the Senedd after the 2021 and 2026 elections. A tall order indeed from where the party is now, and severely limiting in terms of possible involvement by other political stakeholders in Wales.
When I spoke at the 2016 launch of the Yes Cymru campaign in Carmarthen, on the 50th anniversary of Gwynfor Evans’ by-election victory of 1966, I emphasised the importance of establishing a road map towards greater self-government and a sovereign Wales, drawing on collegiate campaigning and nuanced statecraft. By contrast, Adam has created his plan based seemingly on zero-sum outcomes which presents inherent weaknesses, lacking a coherent approach in developing a consensus for reform amongst the population as a whole.
Further, I believe that Leanne Wood has called for the creation of an umbrella organisation to highlight the independence debate amongst the Welsh public. In response to which Yes Cymru has stressed that it is indeed already that organisation with over 10,000 members — outshining Plaid Cymru’s 8,000! Whilst it is the case that Yes Cymru includes people from all parties, as well as those who are not politically affiliated, possibly it remains unclear how sufficiently far removed some of its leading lights are from Plaid Cymru central.
But what is far more important, in my judgement, is that Yes Cymru’s primary focus presently should be to strengthen its organisation and structure, empowering it to continue growing as an effective campaigning force for independence.
I should also refer to the good work of Labour for an Independent Wales. It is crucial for Welsh Labour to be involved in these discussions. We must all remember that the two major constitutional changes in Wales over the last 50 or so years occurred at the time of the Harold Wilson and Tony Blair premierships (i.e. formation of the Welsh Office and Secretary of State, and introduction of the Welsh Assembly). A year or so ago, Gordon Brown came to Cardiff and spoke eloquently in support of a UK-wide Constitutional Convention, but we are still waiting for the Labour party to advance this agenda. Time is of the essence and Welsh Labour needs to proactively get its act together, rather than waiting passively for what might transpire at a UK level.
The other Plaid Cymru leadership candidate, Rhun ap Iorwerth, has made some detailed and practical suggestions about how to successfully progress the party’s nation building aspirations. He sees a fundamental rethink of the relationship between the countries of the UK as a key part of building Welsh independence and has talked of wanting to oversee a Government-led study, a mature civic discussion across the whole of Wales and beyond as a means of striving towards that goal.
With the uncertainties around Brexit, there is an increasing focus on how to advance the cause of self-government in Wales including the issue of sovereignty. I believe the best way forward is to set up a forum in Wales along the lines of the 1990s Scottish Constitutional Convention which was a broad based coalition, including representatives from all political parties, local authorities, trade unions and small businesses etc. with the purpose of fostering a spirit of inclusion, democratic dialogue and consensus aimed at establishing the ‘settled will of the people’.
I also do not believe that it is possible to move from the current constitutional position to a final solution in one jump. Yes, I can see a situation developing over the next five years, especially post-Brexit, where Scotland could well be independent and exploration ongoing of a United Ireland, based on federal principles with two Parliaments north and south. Wales too must be ready, hence my call for a Welsh Constitutional Convention forum.
I recommend we affirm:
- A commitment to ensure increasing self-government for Wales as part of the wider nation-building process, and potentially to gain independence in due course, if desired by the people
- The continued need for close collaboration among the nations of Britain, notwithstanding the precise constitutional status of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England.
Of course to progress this agenda, we need politicians who are unsatisfied with the crumbs of drip, drip devolution, as regretfully has been the case hitherto. Brexit really does put the devolution settlement at risk. It is clear that over the last year new pressures are increasingly emerging which are threatening existing protocols and structures.
In 2018 we are a nation and territory ‘clinging-on’ in practically every aspect of our governance arrangements and, dare I say, national being. We need politicians who are capable of and willing to consider Wales as a land and nation in its own right, embracing all who live within the country. New organisational institutions, economic relationships and even mindsets should be established and nurtured, developed and promoted within a context of a reformed UK constitutional framework.
This vision demands politicians who appreciate the significance of diplomacy and statecraft skills, understanding that the bigger prize may still sit further along the road map in time, but it is also first and foremost important to put in place the necessary foundations to advance our nation-building journey and growth towards that greater self-government and sovereignty desired.
My advice is to attend to those short and mid-term opportunities and challenges as we steadily strive towards achieving the larger ambition.
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