Wales and the Brexit dilemma - will radical devolution provide an escape?

Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales, backed Remain. Now he must advocate for a country that voted Leave. 

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There are no shortage of reasons for people in Wales, and particularly those on the centre-left, to be gloomy about Brexit. Wales has a lot at stake and indeed a lot to lose. Our economy is weak, and we are home to some of the most socially deprived areas in the UK, including much of the south Wales valleys. And a great part of the economy that we do have is heavily dependent on the EU.

For example, Welsh agriculture is largely based around livestock farming, subsidised by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which exports the majority of its produce to EU markets. Wales also depends heavily on a rather small number of manufacturers, such as Airbus, Ford and Tata Steel, who also export a lot to the rest of the EU. A very large proportion of Ireland’s exports to the rest of the EU transit through three Welsh ports – Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke – which might lose out massively if changed single market rules divert that trade through other ports. And much of Wales has been a huge recipient of EU structural funds in recent years: funds that have been used to spend on infrastructure, leisure centres, training for workers and so on.

The UK as a whole for many years has been a significant net contributor to the EU budget; but analysis from Cardiff University last year showed that Wales is a substantial net beneficiary. In short, Wales has a lot to lose from Brexit.

And yet Wales voted for it. Of the 22 local authorities in Wales, majorities in 17 of them voted for Leave: including every single one of those valleys communities that have received so much EU funding and support over the years. I myself encountered people in Bridgend, and Caerphilly who, in the weeks after the vote, were somehow under the illusion that their towns would still be entitled to EU funds. The harsh reality that these communities could be facing is, to my mind, truly frightening.

In addressing this prospect, the Welsh Labour government is in a much weaker position than its Scottish counterpart. Not only does Nicola Sturgeon have the political mandate behind her of an overwhelming Scottish vote to Remain within the EU, but Scotland's First Minister also has a credible threat against London – one realised in March when the independence issue was brought back to life. No such bargaining chip is in the hands of the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones. Moreover, Jones is undermined very obviously by the fact that – along with the overwhelming majority of the Welsh political elite – he backed Remain, and found himself on the wrong side of the Welsh voters. So if, in the months of the Brexit saga that lie ahead, London doesn’t give the Welsh government what it wants – well, so what?

One useful thing that the Welsh government can do is to find some allies. One obvious one is Leanne Wood and her party Plaid Cymru. Like Welsh Labour, Plaid is a centre-left party who heavily backed Remain in the EU referendum; at times the two leaders shared referendum campaigning platforms together. And recently the two parties joined together to publish a white paper that set out Welsh economic concerns and argued for full access to the single market. The paper put forward what we might term a radical devolutionist position on the future of the UK - not only arguing for protection of the existing powers and autonomy of the devolved governments and parliaments, but also advocating a fundamental re-shaping of much of the government of the UK. In policy areas being "repatriated" from Brussels, the white paper proposes intergovernmental co-operation on the basis of equality, rather than the hierarchical relationship that currently exists with Westminster. In short, the UK government would become just one player at the table, rather than the dominant force dealing with subordinates.

Despite what I can see as their many common interests, and the fact that they were in a coalition government for four years (from 2007-11), Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour still seem to find working together somewhat of a strain. There are various reasons for this, many of them going back a long time. Historically, Welsh Labour was often vitriolic in its criticism of the allegedly reactionary nature of nationalism. More immediately, in the upcoming local elections Labour and Plaid Cymru are each other’s main opponents across many parts of Wales. Furthermore, in both parties’ Assembly groups, while there are some who favour co-operation, others are heavily antagonistic in their criticism of each other.

Yet the two parties face some common problems. For many years Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru have both tended to portray Wales as a progressive and politically outward-looking European nation. But recent election results saw Ukip winning seven seats in the Welsh Assembly last May – and the EU referendum result indicates strongly that both parties may have been guilty of wishful thinking. Perhaps Wales as a nation is not as progressive as those in either Welsh Labour or Plaid Cymru would like to believe.

It’s no great surprise that Plaid Cymru could sign up to the vision, presented in the Welsh white paper, of a radically different UK. Many in Plaid would see this as a stepping stone to their long-term objective of Welsh independence. The internal politics of Welsh Labour are more difficult. Few people outside Wales have picked up on the fact that Carwyn Jones has actually been advocating a constitutional convention, and a radically re-shaped UK, for some years. Brexit, and the recent triggering of Article 50, have merely given additional impetus to these efforts.

And yet, until very recently, Jones was unable to even to make much headway in bringing his own party along with him. During his period as shadow secretary of state for Wales, former Labour leadership candidate Owen Smith made no secret of the fact that he shared little enthusiasm for radical constitutional change. However, the mood may be changing. At a Wales Governance Centre event I recently attended, the former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, another New Labour veteran, John Prescott, and Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale shared a stage with Jones. What was most interesting was the enthusiasm they all showed for Jones's radical agenda. Brown paid particular tribute to Jones's leadership on the issue, whilst Prescott talked up the idea of the House of Lords being replaced by a second chamber that might represent the different nations.

The irony is that while Jones appears finally to be having some success in convincing his own party to come on board, it is at a time when the Labour party seems to be slippping into deeper irrelevance across the UK as a whole. 

Both on Brexit and on the re-shaping of the UK, Wales has things to say – but are enough people elsewhere willing to listen?

Roger Awan-Scully is Head of Politics and International Relations at Cardiff University.