It’s perhaps not surprising that the Institute of Welsh Affairs is giving the impression of being very pleased with itself. By securing a debate between the First Minister and the UKIP Leader on the future of the European Union they have certainly got the new year off to a bright start. There aren’t many political events in Wales that are sold out immediately. It’s little wonder that Plaid are spitting mad. But Plaid would be well advised to focus on the day-job rather than to exercise an unearned hubris and an undeserved sense of entitlement on the airwaves.
In many ways tonight’s debate will help to frame May’s Assembly elections in the wider context of the EU referendum which it now appears will be held a month later. Whilst not entirely helpful for those purists who want us to discuss nothing except domestic issues from now until polls close on May 5th, it does recognise the hard reality of the real world and many in Welsh Labour will also welcome this wider context for different reasons.
I am told that it was Carwyn who actively sought out this opportunity to take on Farage in this debate. Many of us will be pleased by this determination. Carwyn is not a natural or emotional European in the same way as Rhodri who lived and breathed the European project. Rhodri could not wait to get on the Eurostar whilst Carwyn does so only when necessary. In this way he is a pragmatic European, recognising the strength of the EU and the advantages that it brings to Wales but not signed up to a political project. And perhaps ironically this ruthlessly pragmatism may well be Carwyn’s big advantage in a debate against an ideologue who is wrapped up in a number of different contradictions and who has a fundamentally hard right wing libertarian approach to politics, much of which is not to Welsh tastes.
So how do we take on UKIP and win this debate?
First and foremost we need to make and win the arguments for Europe anew. Carwyn will need to be at the top of his game and will need to be very well-briefed and informed. Farage has been fighting this battle for years. And whilst his grasp of reality and the facts can sometimes but a little less than secure, his performances are always assured and confident. But we need to do more than simply win an argument between two accountants over a balance sheet.
I believe that as a nation we do tend to be more pro-European than our friends across Offa’s Dyke but we share a media that is overwhelming anti-European and that will continue to have a defining impact on the campaign to come. To sit back and expect a strong pro-EU vote to fall into our laps because of the supposed impact of structural funds or farm subsidies would a mistake of historic proportions.
In this way the referendum campaign will be about who we are as a nation as much as it will be about a retail offer (as they say in political circles) or simply seeing our relationship with the European Union as a a transactional one whereby we stay if its profitable for us to do so with the inevitable consequence that we leave if the equation changes at some point in the future.
For me Europe helps to make sense of our place in the world. As a minister speaking for Wales in European Councils and elsewhere I made the point that it was my purpose to not only address the issues on the desk in front of me but to strengthen, broaden and deepen Wales’ wider relationship with the institutions and peoples of the European Union as well. As a part of the UK we can have our cake and eat it. As a constituent government of one of the major players in the Union we have access to influence and resources and with a powerful Welsh Government presence and programme we can make those UK resources work for Welsh interests. It’s not perfect and there are many in the UK Government who still have a lot to learn about the reality of being a federal state in terms of representing a whole-UK perspective but it could be a lot worse as well.
And we need to be far more street-wise in how we articulate this message. The politics of UKIP are not simply the politics of anti-Europe and anti-immigration they are also the anti-politics political party. Some very rich, right-wing and privileged public school boys have managed to persuade too many people that they are the anti-establishment party. And it is this anti-politics that is driving their vote in many constituencies, including my own. In winning the argument this evening Carwyn will need to both recognise and expose this confidence trick as well. We need to make the case for not only a wider inclusive and tolerant Europeanism but also the case for politics itself. And a politics which isn’t based upon an easy lazy cynicism whilst promoting distrust and suspicion. We need to win the argument for Europe whilst also winning the argument for a politics which can represent peoples’ values, effect change and restore trust and confidence.
So this evening I will be not only be supporting Carwyn Jones in taking on Nigel Farage in this single debate but in arguing for a fundamentally different vision of the future of our country. And for me it is emotional and not simply a matter of dry economics. As a father of young children the vision of Wales as a part of a nineteenth century Ruritanian vision of an isolationist English state is the stuff of nightmares. I want us to create a different place and a different future for all our children. A place of tolerance and a place that looks out on a world with confidence and optimism and not with suspicion and sometimes a xenophobic contempt for different cultures and different people. And that means not only winning a political debate and winning votes in May or June but it means winning hearts and minds as well.