If Alex Salmond has succeeded in one thing, it is putting the Scottish question at the heart of the UK constitutional debate. In addition to dominating the political landscape in Scotland, the First Minister’s plans for an independence referendum have cultivated constitutional soul-searching across the United Kingdom. Perhaps the most intriguing dynamic of this reflection is the developing debate in Wales about the future of the devolution settlement. To what extent will the Welsh Dragon follow the Scottish Unicorn into unchartered political waters?
Much depends on the presence of a credible political force to harness and develop nationalist sentiment into a mandate and majority to replicate the SNP. Enter Plaid Cymru. The Welsh nationalist party presents, if anything, Wales’ best hope as a vehicle for constitutional separatism. But here the similarities with the SNP end. Whilst the SNP has continuously advocated an absolute conviction for an independent Scottish state, Plaid’s constitutional aspirations are relatively ambiguous and dimmed by the conflicting attraction of governing in coalition. A common comparison is that whilst the SNP is a state-building party, Plaid Cymru is a nation-building party, rooted in cultural nationalism and linguistic revival.
Whilst the party maintains an official goal of independence within the EU, this variance in constitutional aspiration has manifested itself in the race to succeed Ieuan Wyn Jones AM as leader of the party. The three candidates represent the face of contemporary Welsh nationalism and the debate on how best to advance the position of Wales and its people. With a previous spell as party leader already under his belt, the former Meirionnydd MP Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM has cautioned against the party becoming distracted by mythical visions of an independent Welsh state, advocating instead a focus on using the tools at hand to deliver change. At a hustings event in Cardiff Bay on 21 February, the former Assembly Presiding Officer pointed across the harbour to the Senedd, remarking “The future of Wales isn’t over the water in Avalon, it’s in that building.” For Elis-Thomas, Plaid’s experience in the early years of devolution was one of “leadership failure,” adding: “For some reason Plaid succeeded in winning devolution and didn’t realise what to do with it.”
For Ceredigion AM Elin Jones, the answer to that question is clear; devolution offers Wales a stepping stone to separation, with Plaid Cymru needing to “define and agree democratically within our party our own route map towards independence”. Whilst the former Rural Affairs Minister cautions against Wales following in Scotland’s shadow, Ms Jones has suggested that two consecutive election victories would mandate a referendum on independence for Wales.
And then there is Leanne Wood. Raised in the industrial Rhondda Valley, the socialist former probation officer would, if successful, become the first party leader unable to speak fluent Welsh. But this, say her supporters, is her potential strength, broadening the appeal of the party beyond the linguistic heartlands of its core membership. Famous for being ejected from the Chamber for referring to Her Majesty the Queen as “Mrs Windsor”, the South Wales Central AM is hugely popular with the party’s younger members. Whilst aspiring to create a sovereign Welsh republic, she contends that ‘real independence’ through economic decentralisation and greater autonomy over resources presents the best opportunity to tackle economic hardship and social disparity.
The current leadership contest is therefore crucial in shaping Plaid Cymru’s response to events in Scotland. However, the mood of the wider electorate will ultimately, as is the case in Scotland, be the most significant force in shaping Wales’ constitutional future. And here any similarities with Scotland evaporate once again. Appetite for independence in Wales remains minimal despite the on-going debate on the future of the UK, hovering at around 10% in most polls. A recent ICM poll placed the figure as low as 7%. Ask the same question about the future of Wales if Scotland were to gain independence, and the figure rises to just 12%. Perhaps more surprising is that even amongst Plaid voters only around a third support the idea of a fully independent Wales, food for thought for the party’s leadership contenders.
The SNP’s calls for an option of further devolution within the UK, so-called ‘devo-max’, raises the prospect of a substantially reconfigured union, and with it the question of the position of Wales. Here, Wales sits in a unique position; caught between the separatist ambitions of Salmond’s administration in Edinburgh, and England with little experience of devolution and perceptions of an unfairly balanced settlement. It is in this void that Welsh politicians perhaps have their best change at influencing the constitutional direction of the UK. Anxious to maintain important levers of power in Cardiff Bay yet keen to remain within the social and economic framework of the UK, it is not inconceivable that Welsh politicians may look to gradual British federalisation in an attempt to preserve Wales’ status as a devolved nation within a wider social union.
In considering the potential for a level of fiscal autonomy in Scotland, the Calman Commission mooted the idea of broad social-based citizenship as the basis for a reformed UK. The newly-formed Silk Commission, currently exploring the possibility of limited fiscal powers will also offer further suggestions on the future of the devolution settlement in Wales. Moreover, federalism appears to be gaining currency among key opinion formers within Welsh public life. In a new book, senior Welsh Conservative AM David Melding explores the possibility of a federal Britain. First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones AM recently announced that he has written to Prime Minister David Cameron MP calling for the establishment of a commission to consider the constitutional structure of the entire UK. At a St David’s Day press conference in Cardiff Bay, the First Minister added: “I believe that there is a case for reforming the UK’s central institutions to reflect the reality of a looser UK with multiple centres of democratic accountability.” The challenge, therefore, is how to organise and plan for the future governance of the UK; constitutional conventions may be formed to seek consensus but this remains difficult when separatist movements are a legitimate strand of the constitutional debate. Then there is England which, with circa 85% of the UK’s population and the lion’s share of seats at Westminster, remains the elephant in the room when it comes to the future of the United Kingdom.
Regardless of the referendum result, the possibility of Scottish secession will continue to drive constitutional debate in all four corners of the UK. For Wales’ politicians, the challenge is how to respond. The Plaid Cymru leadership outcome will to some extent shape that party’s position and the wider political debate in Wales. However, perhaps more telling will be the response of the unionist parties who urgently need to offer a stable, inclusive and alternative vision on how the Lion, the Unicorn and the Dragon can live happily ever after.
Guest Post from Matt in our Cardiff office