Twenty years ago, following the landslide election of the New Labour government in May 1997, Welsh devolution, which had seemingly been halted after the referendum of 1979, was placed back on the legislative agenda. It had been a long road. Ten years previously, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party had offered a ‘democratically-elected Scottish Assembly’ but sought (as it had in the 1940s and 1960s) an economic model of investment and growth in Wales offering bolstered powers for the Welsh Development Agency and the establishment of a Wales Economic Planning Council. A stronger Arts Council for Wales would have been established, too, extending the powers of the Welsh Arts Council of 1946, thereby encouraging a clearer sense of Welsh identity. Labour, of course, lost that election, and spent a further five years rebuilding and redeveloping.
Over those five years, Labour had been won over to a fully-fledged Scottish Parliament, which it would move ‘immediately’ to establish following victory at the 1992 General Election. The offering for Wales of an ‘elected Welsh Assembly in Cardiff with powers and functions which reflect the existing administrative structure’ would have been reached ‘at some point’ before 1997. It may not have happened at all. Nor did it. The Assembly commitment in Labour’s 1997 manifesto was a sharpening up of the 1992 proposal but still left a gulf between the offer to the Scottish electoral and the offer to the Welsh electorate. That has, all along, been the experience of devolution as a real-existing thing.
As an eleven year old in 1997, the intricate questions of what devolution was about passed me by. But it did not pass my parents by and I recall vividly the antagonism with which the referendum campaign was met. They both voted against devolution, and thus I have always been quite sceptical of it myself – for all that you make your own mind up, and I have, the influence of your parents on your own politics is often quite stark. When it came to my own vote in a devolution referendum, in 2011, I also voted no. (And I should preface the rest of this blog by stating that I am still a devo-sceptic.)
The current scholarly ‘consensus’ about the way in which devolution travelled from failure in 1979 to success in 1997 has been framed by the miners’ strike of 1984-1985. For a long time, this argument also struck me as quite persuasive (perhaps in the absence of an alternative). The clearest articulation of it can be found in Hywel Francis’s History On Our Side, in which he relates the fortunes of the Wales Congress in Support of Mining Communities, an organisation established in the autumn of the strike, and which Hywel chaired, that brought together activists from Plaid Cymru, the Communist Party, the National Union of Mineworkers, the women’s support groups, and, of course, the Labour Party. (A similar nod to the strike is made by Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully, although perhaps more tentatively – they stress, instead, the roles played by Margaret Thatcher and Ron Davies. Davies, in particular, emerges as the ‘Donald Dewar’ of Wales.) On Wales Congress platforms were Ann Clwyd, Dafydd Elis Thomas, Hywel himself, and women’s activists such as Hefina Headon. In Hywel’s words:
There is no doubt that the Congress was an important factor in the forging of a national consciousness of a new kind, which led to the successful ‘Yes’ Devolution vote in 1997.
The Wales Congress was, in short, the Left in its element: fighting against a hostile state, organising on the ground, and engaging in debate and discussion around topics as diverse as women’s and gay liberation, class conflict, anti-apartheid, anti-fascism, and internationalism. And on the other side was the mainstream Labour Party, the pee ell pee (PLP), and the party’s new leader, Neil Kinnock, who had once been part of the anti-devolutionist ‘gang of six’, together with Leo Abse (Pontypool), Donald Anderson (Swansea East), the recently retired Fred Evans (Caerphilly) and the recently deceased Ifor Davies (Gower) and Ioan Evans (Aberdare). Other Labour MPs in the South Wales bloc, such as Allan Rogers (Rhondda) who was elected in 1983, or Alan Williams (Swansea West) and Paul Murphy (Torfaen, from 1987) were hardly favourable either. For all that there was, apparently, a growing national consciousness of a new kind, as Hywel puts it, it did not stop Welsh voters returning devo-sceptics time after time. There lies a quandary.
It is a quandary I’ve grappled with as I’ve written Labour Country. Staring at the first draft, and the editorial comments on it, I see the answer that my editor proposes and I see my own efforts at thinking through my own memories of that time. They are necessarily different – there are two generations between us and we were in a very different position in class terms. But let me iterate what I have in draft and then work through it.
In the coalfield, in the late-1980s and early 1990s, the decline was visible everywhere. Institutes and welfare halls closed and then either burned down or were left to decay. Banks and shops which had been sustained by the colliery workforce disappeared. And even as the rest of the world turned into the 1990s, and for a time celebrated the “end of history”, life in the coalfield limped through the seemingly never-ending winter of the 1980s. AS a child going to rugby club discos in the 1990s, the music was never contemporary, it always looked back before the miners’ strike. Come on Eileen (1982), Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (1983), these and other classics of the early 1980s continued to provide the soundtrack to lives lived otherwise through imported cartoons, the last days of amateur rugby, and phone calls made from telephone boxes at the bottom of the hill. When, at the Sheffield Rally on 1 April 1992, little more than a week before the General Election, amidst celebrity, American-style clichés, and helicopters, Neil Kinnock stood at the podium and declared “We’re Alright”, he must have known that we really weren’t. [It’s possible that he said, Well – All Right, but the video tapes suggest otherwise.]
South Wales took a long time to disintegrate, at least in the sense of what had been, but from the first signs of fracture in 1970 when SO Davies was removed as the Labour Party candidate in Merthyr Tydfil to the closure of Tower Colliery, the last deep pit in South Wales, by British Coal, in 1994, that disintegration was always a certainty. What Kinnock ought perhaps to have said was “what shall we do now”. We still await the answer.
In his comments, the editor has reminded me to think about what if Kinnock had won, or if it had been John Smith that had triumphed in 1997 rather than Tony Blair. In this sense, perhaps the comments above appear guided far too much by memory and hindsight. There is certainly an element to that – it’s hard to escape the sense that Labour’s defeat in 1992 was inevitable, after all isn’t that what New Labour wants you to think? The journey out of the miners’ strike for Labour, as the editorials rightly stress, and which I need to come to terms with, as much as I dislike the reality, was away from ‘British Labour’ towards ‘Welsh Labour’. And it was this journey that prompted Labour to come to terms with devolution and its apparent potential in the first place. (These points were analysed by Mari Wiliam in the recent Duncan Tanner memorial festschrift.)
At first, Kinnockian Labour’s steady engagement with devolution seemed like a thorough change of heart and a reversal of a position, and it was certainly exploited as such by Conservatives. Nicholas Bennett, MP for Pembroke, pursued it in a debate on the writ for the Pontypridd by-election in 1989. He remarked:
The Pontypridd by-election should go ahead as soon as possible, if only to spare the Opposition the trauma of deciding where they stand on Welsh devolution. That will be a major issue in the by-election – so major that the Leader of the Opposition was reported in last Friday’s Western Mail … as having come “off the fence on devolution”… The Leader of the Opposition … told a press conference at Westminster, “I am in favour of devolution throughout Britain”. […He then told] a Cardiff press conference, “Wales will get devolution (under a Labour Government) but what is not yet determined is the form of devolution”.
In truth, Kinnock had not become a born-again devolutionist, the Pontypridd by-election was much more traditionally fought, and Kim Howells, a former Communist Party member, and South Wales NUM research officer during the strike, joined the ranks of those South Wales Labour MPs bitterly opposed to nationalism. But unlike his colleagues who were at best luke-warm on devolution and some clearly quite hostile; Kim was openly supportive: the New Statesman at the time remarked that Kim had taken a ‘stand in support of devolution’ and caused Kinnock something of a headache as a consequence. Although in recent times he has often been critical of actually-existing devolution. (A stance that has barely mellowed over the intervening years. In fact, when I was in year eight, Kim held an event with Jane Davidson, who had then been elected as AM for Pontypridd, and I asked the precocious question – what’s the point of devolution. He smirked and gave a diplomatic answer. Jane, on the other hand, tried to enthuse me with all the potential benefits. I’m not sure she convinced either Kim or me.) Two things made the difference in the run up to 1992: the presence of influential Scottish (and English) devolutionists in the Shadow Cabinet, such as Donald Dewar, John Smith, and John Prescott, and the absolute focus of the Labour leadership on winning back power. As Kinnock put it to Lee Waters, then a student, but now AM for Llanelli, ‘it was about 95th on the bloody agenda’.
Had Labour won the 1992 general election, there is no doubt that Scottish devolution would have taken place. But I am more sceptical about the probability of Welsh devolution: if it did occur, it would have been quite late in a four or five-year parliament. Under Neil Kinnock, it would never have become a priority, and it is entirely probable that the individuals who encouraged a clearer turn towards devolution as shadow Welsh secretaries under John Smith, notably Ron Davies, but also Ann Clwyd, would have been kept out of that role in cabinet (Clwyd had previously been shadow minister for overseas development). In several respects, not least the above, defeat in 1992 made devolution to Wales under a Labour government more not less likely.
And that very same journey made Welsh Labour more apparent – today this strand of Labour is the dominant one in Wales (with attendant dangers, which I’ll come on to). There has always been a ‘Welsh’ component to the Labour Party, which inherited the nationalist and devolutionist mantle of the Liberal Party on the one hand and the Independent Labour Party or Communist Party on the other. But this was always in the minority and typically associated with Welsh-speaking and rural areas, or ‘the North’. In contrast to the heavy industrial Labour Party of the South Wales Coalfield or of the coastal port towns and cities, those areas were those where Liberal radicalism rather than democratic socialism provided the political rhythm. For every communist left-nationalist, such as Dai Dan Evans or Idris Cox or Bert Pearce or John Rhoose Williams, who promoted the idea of a national Wales in touch with its gwerin as much as its proletariat, there were those such as Arthur Horner and Bill Paynter and (to a more moderate degree) Dai Francis who scotched any moves towards a nationalist agenda. Horner, in particular, went ballistic at the attempt by Idris Cox and John Rhoose Williams to move the CPGB in Wales towards nationalism and was a vigorous proponent of British labour. (So did the CPGB’s politburo in London, which eventually removed Cox from his post.)
But this battle has now been won, as I say, by the Welsh Labour strand, which is wedded to devolution because this is its only purpose and blinded by devolution because this is the only model it sees as viable. On the one hand, there is no returning to Westminster rule, and on the other there is no moving towards independence because that essentially means writing off the ‘Labour’ facet and accepting an entirely different idea of implementing social democracy. In the absence of power, this is at least something Plaid Cymru activists have plenty of time to think about – and they do. Oh boy, do they. (Well, insofar as socialism and nationalism can be discussed together…)
The old Labour model of unionism has now become indelibly linked with “Westminster rule” and this idea that progressivism is no longer possible from the benches of parliament. The irony is, of course, that the one thing that links progressive Britons (or the Scots, Welsh, and English, if you prefer, dear reader) together – the National Health Service – is the very model of a progressive piece of legislation made and implemented on those benches. We may add, too, the delivery of rights for minorities, provision of comprehensive schools, extension of opportunity for entry to university, social security, and so on. The progressive legacy of parliament is profound and it sometimes feels in public discourse today that this is forgotten, it deserves to be reasserted. (I shall call this, perhaps controversially, Tryweryn syndrome.) That is one way we can break down so much of the mythology of “Westminster rule” to which all parties in Wales, even the Conservatives, sometimes, are prone. But until that happens, we are stuck with a public political discourse that stresses the alien nature of one end of the M4 corridor and the homely nature of the other.
Yet, are they that different? Has devolution delivered a more democratic and open society? I would say not. It is just as possible to be alienated from the Welsh Assembly as it is from the Houses of Parliament. And it is just as likely that the implementation of policy and the efforts at nation building, apparent in both legislatures, has the effect of undermining whole sections of the community. Often the same section of the community. Yes, it would be trite to disregard the effects of austerity and the circumstances in which we currently live, but Brexit has long- and short-term causes, as does the alienation which helps to explain it. This neglect, this failure to deal properly with that alienation, is, in the end, why I’m a devo-sceptic.
There were, as far as I’ve come to understand, two primary reasons why my parents voted against devolution in 1997: that it would lead to a situation where, as working-class English immigrants, they would be alienated from Welsh society through a diminution of their ability to participate and to develop a better life for themselves than was possible in Thatcherite England; and that it would ultimately replace one concentration of power with another, but the hands in which power was held were of much lower quality. The accusation that assembly members were, at best, second-tier politicians was quite commonly made in the 1990s and there was always some truth to that. In contrast to Scotland, where several of the most significant members of parliament stepped away from Westminster to devote their time to building the parliament in Edinburgh, the Welsh Assembly drew on a rank of councillors, trades unionists, and party workers. In the intervening twenty years, this consideration has muted somewhat, but there are still several AMs of dubious quality – on all benches.
This leaves the other motivation for voting No. A motivation that I came to share in 2011, and which the stark divisions exposed by austerity since 2008 has done little to diminish. In the whirlwind around Brexit and the rising tide of UKIP votes in the South Wales Valleys, it may well be, for all the assertion of Welshness in those areas, that this also played a role in a vote that expressed a profound alienation and anxiety. After all, if we ask ourselves the question: who has benefitted most directly from devolution? Is the answer likely to be, those who voted to Leave the European Union?
The easy retort to what I’m about to say is, of course, ‘it’s not the fault of devolution, but of Welsh Labour’. Yes, there is an element of truth in that, but the bigger enemy to progress is devolution. For devolution has encouraged anti-Westminster sentiment, encouraged the mythology of ‘Westminster doesn’t care’, encouraged disengagement with politics as a means of hope, and encouraged populist nationalism. It has taken the wind out of any meaningful attempt at reconnecting the disenchanted with parliament: and there was hardly any wind behind that movement. You cannot build socialism through nationalism. Let us be clear about that. Socialism is about unity – remember that old union aphorism, in unity lies strength? Nationalism is about division, it must be, for that is its purpose, no matter how ‘civic’ it is claimed it to be. And you cannot build an internationally minded population if you remove their access to aspects of life abroad. Since devolution was implemented, modern foreign language education in Wales has declined and in primary schools it has all but evaporated. Is it any wonder folk recoil when they hear Polish or Portuguese or Arabic being spoken when they are never introduced to the idea that people elsewhere speak a language other than English or Welsh? Likewise, there has been a big fuss that students do not learn the ‘history of Wales’ (this should say histories, but no biggie), but what are they learning about, then? America, maybe? Nazi Germany? The Soviet Union? Slavery? Or is it that there is no longer a clear pedagogical division of subjects and students now follow a ‘humanities’ course that struggles to teach them much at all?
The relative ease with which devolution has come to articulate anti-Westminster sentiments, to stoke the very alienation which has led to our current predicament, is a demonstration of the profound weakness of the left-unionist section of the labour movement. Defeated, utterly, in Scotland, in Wales it is a shadow of itself. It’s easy to feel quite alone if you articulate a message that is seemingly quite off message amongst Welsh Labour. It sounds wrong to say, does it not, actually, let’s maybe work on getting Westminster to work. But is such unionism any more illogical than European unionism? After all, being a proud European doesn’t mean surrendering oneself to Brussels-rule, instead it signals a willingness to set aside perceived differences and work together with like-minded people from all over the continent. And that’s true, also, of the situation on these islands. It can only work, however, if it is progressive. Europe’s black hole has been the neoliberal agenda which has proceeded at a pace that has left social reforms behind. The social agenda keeps people connected. And likewise Britain’s black hole has been an economic agenda that has amplified inequalities whilst only occasionally offering rights-based transformations of the social realm. We kid ourselves if we think devolved Wales has been any better on that front either.
It’s great, for instance, and this could be an example drawn from a wide range of rights transformations in recent years, such as those for the LGBT+ community, that a native Welsh speaker can access services and resources in their own first language; but is it fair that Welsh speakers are prioritised for employment in a universal sense? How, for instance, does that impact on the employment opportunities for English-speaking immigrants who could perfectly well perform all that is required of them on a day-to-day basis save the occasional request to communicate in Welsh? Particularly where opportunities for educational attainment have already been limited. It’s one thing to show how able a university-educated professional is to learn Welsh – in addition to other languages they may be familiar with; it’s quite another to insist that a working-class school leaver who has never been exposed to another language be in the same position. Striking the right balance of fairness and equality, of rights and opportunities, remains a big challenge for devolutionists, and always will be unless Wales ceases to be open and friendly to immigrants (something, quite possibly, the Brexit vote signalled some desire for).
I’ll end with a counter-factual. Wales voted No in 1997 and remains, unlike Scotland, non-devolved. The appetite for constitutional reform amongst some unfulfilled, the governing Labour Party nevertheless pushes on with its agenda. Sure Start centres appear in Pontypool, Pontypridd, and Pontardawe; there is a programme of investment in Welsh hospitals and schools, albeit there is some discomfort in Cabinet because of PFI proposals and questions about the ability of poorer areas in Wales to afford this kind of funding and so European objective one is utilised as far as possible. Regional planning developments sees an attempt at re-engaging with the economic development model deployed by the Wilson government in the 1960s, with North and Mid Wales given closer attention by the Welsh Office, and South Wales’s proximity to Bristol and the South West of England properly recognised. The Welsh still sing loudly in the rugby internationals, the Manic Street Preachers are still a great band, but Welshness is kept to cultural occasions and political divisions are once more on the wane. Some want what Scotland has, but bide their time, holding rallies every so often in Aberystwyth and Swansea.
By the mid-2000s regional planning has seen large parts of Wales flourish. There is a new vibrancy. The drug problems (which were endemic, but which you won’t hear mentioned on Wales in the 90s on the BBC) and the decline that once bedevilled cities and towns has diminished and there is a kind of optimism about the place. The blue field and yellow stars of the European Union flies proudly over every public building, sometimes joined by a rainbow, but rarely (if ever) a union flag or Welsh dragon. Flying the flag, they say, is a bit … ‘American’. With curiosity people shop in the new sklepy that have opened, they devour Portuguese pastries, and absorb Scandinavian dramas on television. Language learning in Welsh schools, expanded by the Department for Education in Westminster, has never been higher. On the 23 June, 2016, Wales, like Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the great cities of England, votes to Remain. Wales votes to be European and to reject nationalism and division. And what a very good morning that would have been.