Independence Is Possible Says Commission

The recently published report on Welsh independence offers a thoughtful analysis of constitutional options, but practical political hurdles remain. As Geoff Ryan discusses, while the report moves the conversation forward, delivering substantive change requires overcoming Labour Party reticence.

 

Independence is a ‘viable option’ for Cymru stated the final report of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales published on January 18. This is a major step forward as it rejects the view that Cymru is too small, too poor and too dependent on England to be able to survive as an independent state. Certainly, independence would be incredibly challenging, the Commission claims. but it is by no means impossible. It is a viable option for the constitutional future of Cymru.

And that recognition significantly changes the terms of the debate.  Independence can no longer be dismissed as an impossibility: there clearly can be a future for Cymru outside the United Kingdom.

Within hours of the report’s publication Tory leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt had denounced the Labour Party claiming, ‘it is a sad and sorry state that the most vibrant separatist party in the UK now is not the SNP, it is the Labour Party’. Sadly, there is no truth whatsoever in Mordaunt’s assertions.

The report, it is true, was commissioned by the Labour government in Cymru but was independent of the Labour Party in Cardiff as well as London. The joint chairs of the Commission were Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and ex-captain of Wales’s women’s football team, Professor Laura McAllister, neither of whom have strong connections with the Labour Party. In fact, McAllister has previously stood as a Plaid Cymru candidate. This may make her sympathetic to some of the Commission’s conclusions but hardly suggests she is supporting the Labour Party.

The Commission set out three alternatives for the constitutional future of Cymru without endorsing any one option:

Independence, which they felt was viable but would be challenging.

Enhanced Devolution of powers to the Senedd and government of Cymru which, in the short term at least, may be the most likely.

A Federal UK, the preferred option of leading Labour Party figures such as Mark Drakeford and Mick Antoniw, but which depends on the willingness of politicians in England to accept equal powers for the devolved administrations. This is definitely the least likely of the options since it is highly unlikely, to say the least, that politicians in England will abandon their dominant position in the union.

Significantly the one option they did not endorse was the status quo. In fact, this had already been rejected in the interim report where the Commissioners were highly critical of the way in which the Westminster government had treated the devolved administrations. Clearly, they saw no reason to believe that matters had improved under the short-lived Prime Ministership of Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak.

In addition, the report also called for the devolution of policing, justice and rail infrastructure as well as endorsing the removal of restrictions on Welsh government budgeting, increasing the role of Cymru in broadcasting, creating an expert advisory group on energy and devolving the Crown Estate to the government of Cymru. The scandalous decision by the UK government to treat HS2 as an England and Wales project, despite not an inch of the track coming within miles of Cymru and which meant that Cymru lost out on billions of pounds, clearly influenced the Commissioners attitudes towards control of rail infrastructure. And the Commission’s recommendations largely deal with issues that are already devolved in Scotland.

It also recommends an equal relationship between Westminster and devolved governments and the acceptance by the UK government of the Sewel convention which requires the consent of the devolved administrations before any change to devolved powers.

The report has been welcomed by the government in Cardiff Bay which will be looking at it in detail. Leader of Plaid Cyrmru Rhun ap Iorwerth claimed the report represents an important step forward in debate on the constitutional questions in Cymru. Cymdeithas yr Iaith {the Welsh Language Society} also welcomed the report, especially the section recommending greater devolution of broadcasting powers.

YesCymru claimed the report was a ‘significant step’ towards independence arguing that ‘though the report does not go as far as we would like, it does make it clear that the status quo is completely untenable’. YesCymru argued that the report points to the current devolution set up being dependent on Westminster and can be taken away at any time. They also pointed to how the Commission confirmed that Cymru is trapped in an economy that is shaped in the interests of the Southeast of England and the City of London rather the people of Cymru.

Predictably the Tories rejected the report, calling it ‘constitutional navel gazing’. Lauren McEvatt, the Tories’ representative on the Commission opposed the devolution of powers over the justice system, despite justice having been devolved to Scotland from the formation of the United Kingdom. Other Tories, in England and Cymru were far more hostile, essentially dismissing the Commission as a waste of money.

Nor, contrary to Penny Mordaunt, has Keir Starmer and the Labour Party leadership committed to implementing any of the Commission’s recommendations. In fact, the relationship between the Labour government and the Labour Party in Westminster is likely to take a more right-wing direction whether Jeremy Miles or Vaughan Gething wins the contest to replace Mark Drakeford. A Starmer government in Westminster will make this even more certain. The Labour Party in Cymru has so far been tolerant of supporters of independence. In contrast to the Scottish party supporters of independence have been allowed to stand as Labour candidates.

Of course, there are limitations to the report. It falls short of the powers needed to deal with the decisions of Tata Steel to make nearly 3,000 workers redundant at their Port Talbot plant or other cases where capitalists decide to take away jobs. It falls short of the ability of Westminster governments to drag Cymru into wars against the wishes of the people of Cymru. And it certainly falls short of the demands raised in the submission to the Commissions from Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

Nevertheless, it is a step forward and, despite its shortcomings, should be supported by socialists in England and Scotland as well as Cymru. We will need to make sure that the recommendations of the Commission are acted upon and not ignored by Starmer, especially in the event of a Labour government in Westminster.


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Geoff Ryan is a member of Undod, YesCymru, Labour For An Independent Wales, and Carmarthen East & Dynefwr Labour Party.

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