Tuesday, 22 February 2011

What's the end game?

It’s sometimes too easy to dismiss the arguments of ‘True Wales’ out of hand, given the extent to which they are prepared to distort and mislead.  But some of their arguments deserve a better answer than they get.
Rachel Banner had a lengthy piece in Saturday’s Western Mail, in which a lot of the hoary canards were rehearsed yet again.  There was, though, one point which I thought was well-made, and which the non-nationalist supporters of a ‘yes’ vote have not so far chosen to answer satisfactorily.
She said, “Ron Davies, the pioneer of the devolution settlement for Wales, once memorably described devolution as a “process rather than an event” – the present Yes campaign is keen to portray the referendum as an event rather than a process.  So the Welsh people must not be allowed to have a debate about where the devolution process is leading Wales and the UK…
It’s a rather more nuanced presentation of the ‘slippery slope’ argument – and a more honest one, as well (unlike the conclusions subsequently drawn from it).  Rather than simply asserting that devolution necessarily leads to independence, it suggests that we don’t actually know where devolution leads, because the devolutionists have never spelled out their end game.  It’s still utterly preposterous to distort that lack of clarity into a statement that it must be leading to independence; but there really is nothing wrong with asking for more clarity about where the process is leading.
For a nationalist, the position is quite clear.  Devolution does not lead to independence – devolved power is power retained, as I’ve said before.  But the creation of a Welsh legislature with responsibility for a range of matters does create a basis for adding more powers – and only a fool or a knave would try to argue that it doesn’t make it easier, at a purely technical level, to move towards ever greater autonomy in the future. 
What it does not do, though, is to remove the single greatest obstacle to Welsh Independence, and that is that the people of Wales simply don’t want it at present, and the prospect of that changing any time soon looks pretty unlikely.  Without the support of the people of Wales, Wales will not – ever – become independent.  (Conversely, of course, if such a goal ever does attain that support, then there can be no real argument against it, whatever the status of the Welsh institutions at the time.)
For a devolutionist, the position is a great deal less clear.  All credit to David Melding for spelling out his own commitment to a federal future for the UK – the only Tory devolutionist, as far as I’m aware, to spell out any sort of end point.  The Lib Dems officially hold a similar view, although it’s not often advocated with any real conviction.
The problem, though, is with the Labour Party, and given that they’re the largest party in Wales, that makes it a big problem.  Where does the Labour Party see devolution leading?  There is no settled view within that party, nor are individual members of that party expressing any particularly clear views as to where they want devolution to lead.  I'm quite clear that, whatever the answer is, it is certainly not 'Independence'.
I’m confident that the question posed by ‘True Wales’ about the destination of devolution will not pose too much of a problem on March 3rd; I think people will understand that it isn’t relevant to a specific vote on a specific proposal.  But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good question, or that it won’t return in the future.  At some point, Labour really do need to develop and articulate a more coherent statement about the way that they see Wales being governed.  Without that, the probable continuous slow change will always invite the question.


Democritus said...

Very important question from Ms Banner. I rather think it depends on what happens in England, Scotland and NI, as well as domestically, over the next few decades. Every form of 'home rule' ever presented has had 'jagged edges', i.e. cross cutting policy fields that do not fall easily with either level.

Scotland has the Sewel convention, which so far seems to have served reasonably well in preventing conflict between scottish law and UK law. Whatever the outcome of the Scottish elections I cannot see a crisis on the horizon that would require a fundamental change from the Calman consensus between the unionist parties. Nor do I see the UK coalition agreeing on any kind of 'EVEL' scheme.

I also don't see any great likelihood of Barnett reform from the ConDems either, but by 2015 I wouldn't be suprised to see some sort of effort from Labour - probably involving adjustments to the automatic formula and a 'dampening' provision for Scotland - alongside significant extensions of the revenue raising powers in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

If the Tories win outright in 2015 and are faced by secure Labour led govts in Scotland and Wales then things could start getting tasty.

In the end though Rachel nobody knows. We are sailing in fog with the GPS on the blink. Being British though, I suspect we'll muddle through.

Adam Higgitt said...

An excellent post. You are quite right to suggest that there is no clear end game for many people. How else could ardent unionists stand alongside ardent nationalists and argument for the exact same constitutional innovation?

But perhaps a more pertinent question is: when is the end game? For Plaid, this is a very simple one: when the people of Wales been persuaded of the case for independence, and not before. No matter how many opportunities the people of Wales take to reject independence (and there is in my view a case to be made that they do so at each Westminster election by failing to support a majority of candidates who favour such an outcome) Plaid and others will always insist the topic remain open.

For the unionist parties, the "when" is not so clear, because they are not clear (or at least not united) about the "what". If they were, there would be a good case for a definitive referendum, perhaps even with options ranging from the status quo to independence (or perhaps with a run-off ballot).

If that were to happen, and the answer to the question of independence was a "no" the "when" would not have arrived for Plaid. In this sense, the argument is not asymmetrical; of the people of Wales choose independence that choice is irreversible. If they reject it, nationalists will merely insist on returning to the question until they get the answer they want.

M.stephens said...

it's no real conviction for the lib dem's as they are more interested in May 5 and half of them are secretly NO's anyway


Plaid Panteg said...

Hi John,

I know we briefly spoke about this before, I agreed with what you said then as I did this post.

Might I suggest that it takes a bit of understanding of the other parties motivation to really answer the question.

The fact is that devolution, bringing it about ,furthering it etc will only ever been through a short term, strategic lens for Labour. I mean the Labour party were probably about 20 Westminster seats away from a Lib/Lab coalition - I do not believe Labour would have even lifted a finger for a yes vote if they held onto power.

A multi term Conservative Government might mean Labour push for further powers, but they won't settle on a position because the Labour view on what devolution meant is split. Was devolution supposed to kill nationalism or was a sop to it? You get two different answers within Labour.

Similarly, I think Cameron's nascent ideas about English political identity were dropped as part of deal with the Lib Dems. English votes for English matters would have turned the argument on it's head.

I steadfastly still believe that English devolution or demand for a distinctly English identity is a real unknown catalyst and to be honest vitally important in Wales/Scotland's own future.

I mean, what would those opposed to further powers for Wales do if England DEMANDED we take the powers?

Longer term, I sense that if Labour truly settled on a federal UK like David Melding has, then it would be a really challenge for Plaid, one which was take a real solid response to counter.

Another aspect could be the federalising of the Labour Party - something in my past life as a Labour member I advocated.

I don't think Labour will do that though. I just sense they will treat devolution as a tool to use when it suits.

John Dixon said...


You are right. For nationalists the ‘when’ is always in the future until the aim is achieved, no matter how many times the argument is ‘rejected’ electorally in the interim. (As an aside, unless one believes that parties should follow, rather than attempt to lead, public opinion, then rejection, even long-term serial rejection, is never in itself an argument for a change of view.)

For as long as independence is the only end-point which anyone has defined, that leaves an opening for opponents of devolution to argue that the one leads to the other, which was the key point that I was making.

There is, though, a danger of conflating ‘Plaid’ and ‘nationalists’, in the way that some people conflate ‘Labour’ and ‘socialists’; and the parallel is more pertinent than some might think.

I wrote an article which was published in ‘Agenda’ towards the end of last year raising the question about when Plaid should declare that ‘victory’ has been achieved, and then either disband or become something else. That is not, for me, a purely academic question – much of what some in Plaid are saying at present seems to me to be assuming that that point has been reached, and that the decision has been taken. That is, however, a matter to which I shall return in another post. In the meantime, if we replace ‘Plaid’ with ‘nationalists’ in your comment, then I’d entirely agree with what you say.


I accept that many in the Labour Party see the timing and nature of devolution in purely pragmatic – or even tribal – terms, and I’d have to accept that your perspective is closer than my own, but I still feel that it is unfair to tar them all with that brush, as it were. There are, and always have been, committed devolutionists within Labour (not at all the same thing as the mythical ‘nationalist wing’ of the Labour Party), but their influence has waxed and waned depending on political events.

Would some sort of federalism be acceptable to most nationalists? Hard to say – I suspect it depends on what one means by ‘federalism’, a concept which itself comes in multiple flavours. The extent to which it’s a ‘challenge’ for Plaid comes back to the question of what Plaid is for.

Democritus said...

Nationalist support for devolution is in someways similar to a trotskyist 'transitional demand', but I prefer, and I think it's a more accurate description of the way the majority in PC think, to see it more as a kind of Fabian step by step approach.

Adam is probably right to take Plaid's Parliamentary and Assembly election performances as a kind of loose proxy for support for independence among the electorate. After Sinn Fein's performance in 1918 there could be no going back to the 1914 Home Rule Act.

He's also got a point about asymmetery. If you think, as I guess TW types do, that every extension of devolution is a step toward eventual separation then devolution becomes a nationalist ratchet which only turns one way. I don't suppose Ms Banner's name check of Ron was accidental. There are plenty of other people who've said similar things, but Ron of course not only now openly advocates separation from the rest of Britain, but the dishonesty which led to the twin 'scandals' being so personally destructive is still widely remembered among those who used to follow him.

As a point of general principle, in a Westminster type parliamentary democracy, territorial referendums, if required at all, really should be held on simple, issues of major importance (e.g. the Good Friday referendum in NI). Our elected representatives should not pass the buck by calling for a plebiscite except in situations (e.g. the Common Market) where there is benefit in a decision being settled with lesser likelihood of being tampered with than a normal act of parliament (it would be constitutionally possible to revoke our EU membership by simple act of parliament. Save in a crisis however it would be politically unthinkable not to hold a further referendum).

The 1997 referenda just about satisfied this criteria inasmuch as devolution was opposed, in principle, by the Tories (and in Scotland initially by the SNP too), the fact of the referendum increased confidence that the Govt of Scotland/Wales Acts would not simply be repealed following a change at Westminster. This one certainly doesn't. The issue is arcane and clearly not of first order constitutional importance. There is no party represented in either Cardiff Bay nor the Commons that is opposed, nor any major active politician so it isn't unreasonable to ask quite why we are being bothered about it next Thursday when all Parliament needed to do was amend the 2006 Act a bit?

Democritus said...

This is why (at risk of MH's wrath), despite not really sharing their concerns, I think it is legitimate for TW campaigners to widen the issue. They may not be able to turn the clock back runs the argument, but by throwing a spanner in the works a 'No' vote can hold up the "process" for at least one electoral cycle (depending on the scale of it), whereas a 'Yes' vote will be taken by both nationalists and pro-devolution unionists as an endorsement of their further ambitions e.g. gaining Barnett reform and revenue raising powers.

Despite my Athenian heritage I do hugely admire the British/English constitution for the hugely flexible, yet highly effective instrument it is. The Agora is prone to be swayed by simple passions and does not much care for detail or subtlety. The complexities of 21st Century government at scales far beyond my corpuscular existence necessitate a more indirect approach to scrutinising the myriad of decisions a modern government must take.

Finally I am intrigued by John's suggestion that there is a faction within his Party that advocates something short of classical sovereign independence (i.e. seat at UN, effective defence capability, control over currency etc.) as their ultimate aim. I suppose it's not really any different to the discovery that not every Labour member is actually a democratic socialist, but if John could only articulate a bit more clearly what sort of destination he envisages this might also help advance the debate in the pro-devolution unionist parties by giving them something more real to define themselves in relation to.

John Dixon said...


Entirely agree that this is not the issue on which we should be having a referendum. I can see why people think that the changes in GOWA 2006 might have justified a referendum. Changing the Assembly from an administrative body to a legislative one was a much more significant change. But merely changing the timing of the passing over of legislative powers already agreed by parliament required a referendum for one reason and one reason only - internal Labour Party politics. It's pragmatic politics, but it isn't a sensible basis for holding referenda.

"John's suggestion that there is a faction within (... Plaid ...) that advocates something short of classical sovereign independence"

That isn't quite what I said. What I said is that a lot of what some in Plaid are saying these days seems to presuppose that a point has been reached at which a decision can be taken (and that that decision has been taken) for Plaid to become primarily a party of govenment rather than a party of constitutional change. It's not quite the same thing. But it isn't the subject of this post, and is for returning to at another date.

Anonymous said...

Has Ron Davies really advocated separation from the UK? Or even said that he supports Independence? If he has, then I must have missed it.

Democritus said...

Accept that its worth a post in its own right.

Apologies for the misunderstanding of your meaning. Now I take it you are saying there's a philosophical strand that sort of says:

"full independence is a chimera in todays globalised, interconnected times. All we really want is for Wales to be recognised as a distinct geo/political entity within the EU, NATO, Eurozone (delete to taste) and for the principle of subsidiarity to be applied wherever possible.

Consequently, with all the other major parties now apparently firmly signed up to this idea themselves, Plaid's purpose has been largely served and thus the perennial left/right tussles around the distribution of power, wealth and opportunity that animated constitutional upheaval in my corpuscular existence return to the fore - much in the same way as once my ancient Greeks had despatched Xerxes they returned to quarreling with each other.

Such a line of logic implies either abandoning PC to the fundies - just as decent people abandoned the CP to the tankies after 1956 - and joining or founding other political movements; or it implies a battle within PC to define which side it's on. PC's willingness to form a government with EITHER Rhodri or Nick last time around is a valuable asset when bargaining for cabinet seats, but does indicate a certain ideological fickleness.

Great blog btw ...

John Dixon said...


"Now I take it you are saying there's a philosophical strand that sort of says: ... etc..."

Nope, but nice attempt at seeking more elaboration! You give rather more credit for thought-out positions than is entirely justified. Your penultimate paragraph is closer to the mark - but, as I said, it's really a subject for another day. I will come back to it, but don't think that a comment thread on another issue is the best way of doing so.

Democritus said...

Anon 18.03; I haven't paid close attention to Mr Davies pronouncements since he left public office a decade ago, but He is now standing as a PC Assembly candidate, so I thought it safe to assume he does

Plaid Panteg said...


I have wrote some thoughts on the matter...hope you enjoy.