Aura of success: the National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff. Photo: Getty Images
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The view from Wales: the time for nostalgia about empire and union is past

Preserving the past in aspic risks neglecting the future.

As Scotland moves ever closer to the referendum in September that will deter­mine its future, Plaid Cymru looks on in anticipation. We may not be in the same constitutional position but the Party of Wales has good reason to be optimistic. Scotland’s steady advance creates great possibilities and opportunities for Wales to carve out a stronger position within these islands for ourselves.

It is clear that people in Scotland have already succeeded in moving to what I would describe as an independent mindset and to a point where the Scottish National Party First Minister commands respect, influence and authority on the highest stages. Alex Salmond continues to set out an exciting vision of what an independent Scotland will look like: a “people’s constitution”, a Scottish welfare state, and an economy that will compensate for the prominence of oil and gas revenues by investing heavily in renewables. The SNP government has been able to demonstrate that Scotland has all the tools to become a successful independent country.

It goes without saying that Plaid Cymru supports a Yes vote in Scotland, but the tectonic plates are now shifting to such an extent that there is bound to be far-reaching political and constitutional change whichever way the vote goes. This in itself should not come as a surprise, given that the current constitutional settlement in the United Kingdom is less than 100 years old and that matters like this seem to have a habit of changing once in every three or four generations.

There are poll results which show an increasing thirst for autonomy in Wales. A survey carried out on behalf of the Silk Commission, set up to examine the case for further devolved powers in Wales, shows that more than half of the population wants welfare and benefits to be controlled by the National Assembly for Wales. The same poll indicates that 70 per cent believes powers over renewable energy, including large windfarms, should transfer to Wales. On policing, 63 per cent says these powers should be devolved. In 2011, every Welsh constituency bar one voted for law-making powers to be transferred from Westminster in devolved matters. This is remarkable, considering it is barely a generation since devolution was rejected resoundingly here in the 1979 referendum.

The challenge will be to convert this pop­ular demand for greater control over our own affairs into electoral success for Plaid Cymru. One of the obstacles in matching the success of the SNP is, and has been, the strength of the Scottish economy compared to that of Wales. Scotland’s economic history exhibits all the signs of a country that formed a union with England. Wales’s economic history demonstrates a country that was conquered, annexed and absorbed by England, with only our distinct culture preserving the idea that we are a nation. It is one of the reasons why, under my leadership, Plaid Cymru is focusing on the transformation of the Welsh economy.

The Scottish referendum gives us in Wales a new opportunity to ask why the Union has failed consistently to enable Wales to become a prosperous nation. It also encourages us to keep asking questions about whether any government in London will be able to deliver for the Welsh economy, and spurs us in Plaid Cymru to set out a vision that involves us having more control over our affairs – including levers that would help us improve the economy, such as taxation, rail policy, ports and energy. While the people of Wales are not yet convinced that they will be better off as an independent country, they want substantial further devolution.

The spirit of Nordic co-operation could be a new way to look at the politics of the United Kingdom, or what will be left of it. New institutions could also be built around the sterling zone and the “social union” that the SNP is seeking to preserve, while retaining our domestic autonomy (and, of course, our rugby and football teams!). In such a scenario, Wales would look much more like a modern nation state than it ever has done.

A grouping of friendly and close-knit nations should always exist in these islands. But preserving the past in aspic risks neglecting the future. The time for nostalgic views about empire and union must now give way to a partnership of equal nations. Our diversity should be celebrated, not submerged. Solidarity is something that should be shared between equal nations.

The Scottish referendum, whatever the result in September, will establish a new, multinational era.

Leanne Wood is the leader of Plaid Cymru and the Assembly Member for South Wales Central 

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

All photos: India Bourke
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“They cut, we bleed”: activists Sisters Uncut protest closures of women's services

 “Our blood should not pay for our rape.”

Over 500 domestic violence survivors and support workers processed through central London this weekend. The protest, staged by the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, mourned the women’s services that are losing out as a result of the government's austerity drive.

Since November 2014 the group has occupied streets, burned copies of the Daily Mail, and hijacked the Suffragette film premiere. But on Saturday the mood was somber. In Soho Square the group staged a symbolic funeral service. Attendees stood in a protective circle, fists raised, while members took turns to read out the names of the scores of women who’ve been killed by men in the past year:  “Anne Dunkley, 67; Nadia Khan, 24; Lisa Anthony, 47…”. The youngest was just 14 years old.

The service culminated in a promise “to never forget” the dead, and also to protect the living: “We must love and support one another; we have nothing to lose but our chains".

As the protestors passed St Martins in the Fields Church, dressed in black veils and funeral attire, the crowd of passers-by broke into spontaneous applause. “It gave me goosebumps”, Caroline, an activist and former victim of abuse told me. “You expect people on the march to be supportive but not the people on the street. I’ve been on other marches and people normally complain about you being selfish and blocking up the streets but this response makes you feel like people do  care.”

The show of public support is especially welcome in the aftermath of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Cuts to local authority budgets have already led to the closure of over 30 domestic violence services since 2010, including Eaves, a charity that provided services for single, low-income and vulnerable women.

Further erosions to local council budgets will only put more services and lives at risk, activists say. Also of concern is Osborne’s decision to devolve responsibility for raising a social care tax (of up to 2 per cent on council tax) to local authorities. This tips hostility to tax increases away from central government to local authorities, and could place greater pressure on women’s services to compete for funding.

The Chancellor offered a supposed silver lining to the cuts with the promise that VAT money raised from the EU’s compulsory tax on sanitary products will be ringfenced for women’s charities, such as the Eve Appeal and Women’s Aid.

The implication, however, that only women are to pay for helping the victims of domestic violence was met with derision from Sisters Uncut. As the marchers approached their final destination in Trafalgar Square, red dye turned the square’s famous fountains the colour of blood. “This blood won’t wash the blood from Osborne’s hands,” read one tampon-draped banner; “Our blood should not pay for our rape”, read another.

For those on the march, the cuts are an affront on many levels. All those I spoke to worked in some form of public service; everything from housing to foster care. But some have had to move out of the women’s services sector for the lack of funding.

Louisa used to work for a domestic violence service in London until it was forced to close last month. “I’m here because I’ve witnessed first hand what the cuts are doing to women and how much the organisations are having to squeeze what they can provide.”

All public services have legitimate claims to support - from the 14-strong police team that escorted the marchers, to the sweepers who were left to dredge the protesters’ roses out of the fountains and brush away the tampons that had fallen from their banners.

The danger, however, according to Caroline, is that the needs of domestic violence victims are all too easy to sideline: “This is by its nature something that goes on behind closed doors,” she says. As funding tightens, these voices musn’t be squeezed out.

Sisters Uncut is an intersectional group open to all who identify as women. The national domestic violence helpline offers help and support on 0808 2000 247. Members of the LGBT communities can also access tailored support from Broken Rainbow on 0800 9995428.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.