Thursday, 2 September 2010

Blair off-message

It's not unknown for me to read political memoirs written by members of other parties, but I'll be giving Blair's a miss. Paying good money for 700 pages of self-justification is surely too much to ask. It means that I'm relying on the press coverage of what he did or did not say, with the inevitable danger of selectivity implied by that.

But in his comments on devolution, he does seem to be uncharacteristically off-message in his use of terminology. Specifically, the quote about "You can never be sure where nationalist sentiment ends and separatist sentiment begins" is in direct contradiction to the usual approach of many members of the Labour Party in Wales which assumes that 'nationalist' and 'separatist' are one and the same thing.

Worse, in terms of tearing up the script, is his apparent assumption that devolution was about pandering to nationalist sentiment. It was always my understanding that devolution, from a Labour perspective, was supposed to be about improving the government of Wales (and indeed the UK as a whole), and that, insofar as it dealt with nationalism at all, the intention was to defuse nationalist sentiment, not to pander to it.

And actually, I've always feared that Labour's analysis on that was correct – a properly thought-through and worked out scheme of devolution could indeed have created a more stable long-term future for the UK, and frustrated the ambitions of those of us who think that not to be the best future for Wales. That line of thinking was part of the reason why two members of Plaid (the other being the late Dr Phil) argued in a Plaid National Council meeting in 1978 that Plaid should campaign for a 'no' vote in the 1979 referendum. (Not for the first time in my life, I was on the losing side in that debate...)

Fortunately for Plaid's long term ambitions, the Labour Party's inability to deal with its own internal tensions, misunderstandings, and disagreements on the issue led to a compromise which satisfied almost nobody. It now looks as though that confusion over what they were trying to achieve and why went right to the top.

10 comments:

Jeff Jones said...

The architects of devolution are Margaret Thatcher and John Smith.Without the reaction to Thatcher, devolution would probably have died a death after 1979 and without John Smith and Scotland it would not have been revived in the Labour Party. Blair inherited the policy from John Smith and wasn't that interested. Smith and Donald Dewar might have seen devolution as a means of killing off nationalism but I doubt if many in the Welsh Labour Party gave it much thought beyond it might stop a rerun of Thatcher in the future. There was no real debate except perhaps about the system of electing AMs. Hence the present problem of no one really knows where devolution will end up. For Nationalists like yourself who want independence it is obviously an unsatisfactory situation. Who except the ministers wants to be permanant junior coalition partners? What happens next if you get a'yes' vote is the key question. Another referendum on tax raising powers perhaps? Labour is in the same position having never really thought through the logic of devolution or even for that matter really debated where it wanted to take devolution. More devolution was always going to equal fewer Westminster MPs and make it even harder for a Labour majority at Westminster. It also puts the political careers of Welsh Labour MPs into a bit of political cul de sac. There will never, for example, probably ever again be a Welsh MP in the cabinet with responsibility for any of the issues that are devolved. As the next few years will show the complete control of the Assembly's finances by Westminster will also limit even with full lawmaking powers any new policy initiative which involves increased public expenditure. In Scotland they are already talking of abolishing many of the free services which were introduced after 1999 and paid for by the generous increases in income by the Labour government. Unless someone starts to talk about the next step from both a Labour Party and Nationalist perspective even a yes vote on another low turnout next year will see further change parked into the sidings for a generation. In many ways it could be argued next year's referendum is being held at the wrong time and is asking the wrong question because the 2006 Act was such a dog's breakfast. We are still paying the price of the failure in Wales to have a cross party constitutional convention in the 1990s and the rush to hold a referendum in 1997.

John Dixon said...

Jeff,

"Unless someone starts to talk about the next step from both a Labour Party and Nationalist perspective even a yes vote on another low turnout next year will see further change parked into the sidings for a generation."

I agree. The problem is that many in Plaid are afraid to talk about what happens next for fear that it confirms the 'slippery slope' argument on which I posted a couple of weeks ago. And, as you spell out yourself, no-one in the Labour Party is really thinking about what the end game for Labour is. That's a great pity, because if the Labour Party could be clearer about what it thinks is the end-game, then it would be much easier for people to see the difference between 'devolution' and 'independence', and understand that one does not lead to the other. That, in turn, would make it very much easier for both 'devolutionists' and 'nationalists' to present their arguments. And, as a by-product, it would actually make it harder for the antis to argue against one on the basis that it is in fact the prelude to the other.

"In many ways it could be argued next year's referendum is being held at the wrong time and is asking the wrong question because the 2006 Act was such a dog's breakfast."

And on that, I heartily agree. I think today's news about the Electoral Commission's response to the draft question highlights the fact remarkably well. We're going to end up with a dog's breakfast of a question in a referendum which will still not really undo the dog's breakfast of the 2006 Act, even if a 'yes' vote wins. But the options of revisiting whether we really need a referendum to implement something which parliament has already passed or to hold a more meaningful referendum on an easier to understand and more substantive question (such as parity with Scotland) are not on the agenda, and there seems to be no way of getting them on to it either.

"We are still paying the price of the failure in Wales to have a cross party constitutional convention in the 1990s and the rush to hold a referendum in 1997"

Again, I can only agree with you. Perhaps when the dust has settled on next year's referendum, that might be a step to which Labour could agree?

glynbeddau said...

"We are still paying the price of the failure in Wales to have a cross party constitutional convention in the 1990s and the rush to hold a referendum in 1997"

But how could there have beem a constitutional convention when the "Unionist Parties" would not have agreed to discuss independence as happened in Scotland.

I was one of those who reluctantly supported the measure because for the referndum to fail would have made a laughing stock in the rest of the World.

However we must move on and make the dam thing work. The issue of independence is an argument beyond the Assembly and Westminster.

Cibwr said...

If I remember correctly many argued for a constitutional convention, including Plaid and the Liberal Democrats and a large section of the voluntary sector. We were told in no uncertain terms that one could not be held as Welsh civic society was not developed sufficiently to sustain such a convention! That came directly from leading figures in Welsh Labour. The reality was that such a convention would have exposed the splits in Labour and detracted from what many in Labour saw as their "leading role" in Welsh society.

I hope that after this referendum we can have an honest debate on where we go next, it will not please people in Plaid or Labour but it might well give some stability on which to build.

alanindyfed said...

"The issue of independence is an argument beyond the Assembly and Westminster."
The issue of independence is greater than the question of which political party is dominant in Scotland or Wales. From Labour's perspective a Yes vote would not only cement the policies which led to devolution and lead to their possibly unintended conclusion but would establish the party as a party with Wales' interests at heart (the same in Scotland). At present only Plaid Cymru and the SNP have a clear objective, the progress to an independent future, but for a unionist party to come over to the nationalist position could be that party's saving grace, providing momentum for the reconquest of the English vote.

Spirit of BME said...

Mr Dixon,I like this blog.
Blair stated that Devolution will save the Union, as he saw the potential of Scotland leaving the Union -Wales was not a threat and got less.
The English Parliament has tried these tactics to hold on to power before ,namely under the Raj in Indja,where devolution worked and in the Princely States ,but Congress tried to make the system work for the good of the common man but got a severe shock from the Quit Indja Movement that was free to operate outside the imposed government of the Raj.-and the rest is history.
So, devolution is NOT going to deliever for Wales a vehicle for liberation, but most in Blaid are in denial of this fact and it is partly for this reason why I would vote No in this referendum

Peter Freeman said...

Another great post John. I remember that National Council meeting well. I didn't speak on that subject there but I did argue that point at the party conference that year. I, along with Meurig Parry and John ball argued that we were siding with a labour party policy rigged to look like a nationalist defeat. That year I was also a delegate the the Wales T.U.C. conference in Llandudno. I had an interesting discussion with Dr. Phil and George Wright, the generak secretary of the Wales T.U.C. George had been an uncompromising supporter of devolution as well as a prominent member of the labor party. e admitted to us that his "friend" Neil Kinnock, had stabbed him in the back.
The odd thing about the referendum of 1979 was the distinct possibility that had Plaid advocated a "No" vote, there may well have been more support for the Yes vote.
I look forward to this referendum and it's result but whose policy is it? and is Plaid again fighting for the opposition's survival.

Anonymous said...

Being too young to have been involved in the ill fated 1979 referendum im always interested to read the views and experiences of people on the losing side who were..such as john dixon and peter freeman.

One thing that always strikes me is that the scars of that bitter experience are stil there....even after 3 decades and even after the succesful referendum of 1997. And with those scars there seems to be a lingering and deep distrust of welsh labour when it comes to the issue of devolution for wales.

I have to say im not sure this lingering mistrust is any longer justified. Yes of course we know we are having this referendum because peter hain wanted to appease devo-sceptics in the welsh labour party who didnt want to see the recommendations of the Richard commission implimented. But there are clearly a number of prominent individuals within welsh labour who are deeply committed to devolution for wales and in extending the powers of the assembly - obvous examples being carwyn jones, edwina hart, rhodri morgan and leighton andrews ...and i hope jeff jones.

What i find encouraging about the whole referendum debate this time round is that there is nothing like a 'gang of 6' within welsh labour ready to torpedo their own party's policy on devolution as there was in 79. Nor is there a even a gang of three MPs...or was it four...who opposed the creation of an assembly in 97.

Indeed there does not seem to be a single labour MP or prominent member of the welsh labour party who has lined up with UKIP and True Wales in opposing primary lawmaking powers for the assembly! Organised opposition within welsh labour appears to be confined to a handful of activists in torfean and islwyn (though yes there are rumours about a certain Lord and a certain former MP for pontypridd joining the fray on the No side)

Given how important the votes of welsh labour voters will be in helping to deliver a yes vote the absence of any serious opposition within welsh labour could be the crucial factor in determining the result of this referendum campaign!

I have to say im glad that plaid cymru did not call for a No vote in 1979. To have done so i think would have destroyed plaid cymru's credibility on the issue of devolution for decades! The principle behind the 1979 devolution proposal - that the welsh people be offered a degree of self government - was the right one! As it was in 97 and as it will be again in 2011.

Thankfully plaid cyrmu stood by its principles in 79 and 97 and its members campaigned energetically for a yes vote...as they must do so again in 2011.

Finaly i have to say how nice it was to see mention of my old friend Dr john ball. I had the pleasure of working alongside john in swansea during the 97 referendum campaign. He was tireless in campainging for a yes vote and is clearly a passionate advocate for the welsh nation. I believe John recently had some very interesting things published by the institute of welsh affairs in which he put the case for the establishment of a welsh stock exchange.

Leigh Richards
swansea.

alanindyfed said...

"Given how important the votes of welsh labour voters will be in helping to deliver a yes vote the absence of any serious opposition within welsh labour could be the crucial factor in determining the result of this referendum campaign!"

Agreed, and I personally have no doubt under present circumstances that Labour voters in Wales will support the Yes campaign. The Unionist camp appears to be centred among the hard right of the Tory party and no longer with the progressive left.

John Dixon said...

AlaninDyfed (Comment 1),

I believe that there are many people in the Labour Party (and other parties come to that) who genuinely have Wales' best interests at heart. They don't agree with me about how those interests are best served, and don't see serving the interests of Wales as being about constitutional status, but that isn't the same thing.

And on comment 2, I really do think it's a mistake to categorise support for independence as being a left-right issue. Now, what sort of Wales we want to create afterwards, on the other hand...

Leigh,

I'll reserve judgement on the position of Labour's MPs etc. in the referendum until campaigning starts. Don't assume that. just because they've been quiet to date, they will remain so.