This is an article I wrote last week for the Institute of Welsh Affairs. In a week with lots happening and us trying again to get our constitution fit for the future. Again. I’m arguing that essentially too many people think that the struggle and campaign for Welsh democracy is won. My view is that whilst there are real opportunities over the coming years to achieve the sort of constitutional settlement that will allow us to move forward after over a quarter of a century of argument, there are also significant and serious threats facing us.
There’s a common assumption amongst many commentators that Brexit is breaking up Britain. And that may be true. The potential of a border poll ending the Northern Irish state would be quite a way of marking its centenary. At the same time the Scots may also be driven by a combination of an English nationalist government and a careless London-centric culture to believe that they can do better themselves. And as things currently stand who can blame them?
The received wisdom is that this will naturally drive the ever-cautious and more-conservative-than-we’d-ever-want-people-to-know Welsh to follow a similar route. Many people, including myself, have been clear that a United Kingdom of Englandandwales is no union at all. Of course, the major flaw with the inevitability theory of the future is that it has a terrible tendency to keep letting down those people who happily believe that it will somehow change the future for them whilst they enjoy a cup of tea.
But this assumption fails to understand the volatility and power of the right wing populism that is driving not only the debate over Brexit but has captured the Conservative Party and is driving a new more aggressive and narrow sense of Britishness and using the machinery of the UK Government to help it do so. Rather than the end of Britain as a political construct I fear that we may be witnessing the emergence of a new authoritarian Britishness that recognises the plurality of political power across the countries of Britain in theory but which in reality works to undermine and to dismantle devolved political power, building a new centralised British state in its place.
It is this ruthless and relentless Brexit populism with its intolerance of dissent that is actively creating, driving and reinforcing the divisions that have characterised and disfigured our public discourse in the last three years. And if it is prepared to describe our independent judiciary as “enemies of the people” and to challenge the democratic legitimacy and authority of the UK Parliament then just imagine the attitude towards a National Assembly which actively seeks to oppose, challenge and question its new hegemony. We can’t say that we haven’t been warned.
And here lies the hard reality and the challenge facing those of us who have spent a lifetime fighting for Welsh democracy. By a small margin Wales voted to leave the European Union. And it was a vote that was certainly driven in part by this new assertive British nationalism. But it was more driven by this populism. A populism rooted the failures of our current democratic institutions and political parties to respond effectively to austerity and the economic reality of life for too many people. And we shouldn’t be surprised. It is the same populism that has driven the electoral successes of right wing parties across almost every one of our Western liberal democracies.
The unchallenged messianic appeal of Farage and his little coterie of angry shouty privately-educated millionaires means that these rich and powerful individuals can now label comprehensive schools as the incubators of entrenched privilege and the occupants of castles dismiss the sons and daughters of council estates as an elite that needs to be defeated in the name of the will of the people. And which allows them to get away with such hypocritical and sanctimonious cant.
And it probably goes further and deeper than this. Welsh politics is completely out-of-step with this outraged and enraged right wing demagoguery. Traditionally our political debates have been marked by an acceptance of many left-of-centre and liberal ideas and assumptions. Whilst it is always a good thing to challenge the status quo and lazy assumptions, without an indigenous press and media we cannot easily hold a conversation with ourselves. Our news media and our public discourse are dominated by a London-centric view of the world, all too often our own debate is drowned out in the noise emanating from London. And for many people that’s just fine. But it means that we have far fewer tools at our disposal to challenge this new right wing.
And I see it at first hand. I represent Blaenau Gwent. It is the place which recorded the highest leave vote in Wales. I am repeatedly told that this proves the people I represent are determined to leave the EU under any or all circumstances and that they want a return to a British Imperial Government – union jacks and blue passports. And it is true that there are a proportion of people who do want this – as there are in many places – those same people who cannot believe that the threat of a British gunboat doesn’t bring Johnny Foreigner to heel.
But overwhelmingly my real experience is different to that. And this is another reality.
Many, and possibly most, people in Blaenau Gwent feel that politics (and politicians) have let them down. Canvassing in the referendum campaign I spent less time discussing the rights or wrongs of the EU and more time discussing the failures of the local council and the failure of those of us on the centre-left to respond adequately to the impact of the 2008 financial crash. Austerity may have originated in SW1 but its impact is not felt in the restaurants and bars of the Palace by the Thames. The hard human impact of austerity is the daily reality of life for many of the people that I represent. And many voted to leave the EU because they couldn’t see any benefit from a status quo that had failed them. And the same right wing Brexiteers who champion the abolition of inheritance tax – which affects almost nobody in Blaenau Gwent – also tell us that the EU funding which has paid for apprenticeships and investment in our local infrastructure is simply a gravy train for a Cardiff Bay elite.
And here is the danger for our own democratic institutions in Wales. Our National Assembly and our emerging democratic institutions mean nothing to the new right. The intense and angry intolerance of dissent that I see on social media is shaping a different sort of national debate. For these populists democracy stopped when polls closed in June 2016 and if we stand in their way then our institutions – which do not have the advantage of a centuries of cultural acceptance – will also be a target for abolition or emasculation “in the name of the people”.
Ironically this is a very un-British approach to politics. The fundamental tenets which unite most parts of our different British political traditions is a tolerance, a belief in freedom of expression, political pluralism, a respect for political opponents and for our shared institutions. The authoritarianism of this New Right is foreign to us and our history and it has no respect and no place for either those institutions and cultural norms which have been the bedrocks of British democracy over the centuries. A campaign which was founded on the belief that we need to restore our sovereignty and our democracy has now turned its sights on that sovereignty and that democracy. Again our parliaments and any democratically-elected representative who questions the will of the people is angrily dismissed. Only the Queen appears to have escaped their wrath.
So I believe that we need to make the case again for a Welsh politics and re-make the case for Welsh democratic institutions and governance. And also make the case for a politics which is tolerant and generous. A politics which is rooted in a democracy in Wales and across the UK with checks and balances and underpinned by an intelligent and open debate and a democratic culture. And of course it is this openness and this tolerance that the new right wing Brexiteer populists hate and fear most of all.