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27 February 2014

The view from Wales: the time for nostalgia about empire and union is past

Preserving the past in aspic risks neglecting the future.

By Leanne Wood Leanne

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.

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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