Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What's The Welsh For 'Schadenfreude'?

Interesting developments today in Wales, where all hell appeared to break loose after Labour put out a press release declaring that there would be no more progress on a referendum on further devolution until after the general election.

Referendum? Further devolution? Labour? Yes, you read the above correctly. Enacted by a Labour government and supported by the Lib Dems, as a result of the 2006 Government of Wales Act, provision exists for our Cambrian cousins to hold a referendum to decide whether or not the Welsh Assembly should be given primary legislative powers. Even some Welsh Conservatives are now in on the fun, arguing that not only should there be a vote on granting legislative powers, but also arguing in favour of the move.

The statement by First Minister Rhodri Morgan, Welsh Secretary Peter Hain and the Chair of Welsh Labour clearly caught their Plaid Cymru coalition partners unawares. Part of the 'One Wales' coalition deal between the two parties is a commitment to holding the referendum, if it is winnable, by May 2010. In response, Plaid branded the move as a "serious breach of trust" and "completely unacceptable". Things appeared to have cooled down by the afternoon, though, with Rhodri Morgan and Plaid Depute First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones able to say in an emergency statement following some hasty afternoon negotiations that "all options" on timing were open.

The similarities, not to say differences with Scotland are immediately apparent. With the Westminster Government insisting that there will be no progress on Calman until after the election, and this attempt by Peter Hain to delay a referendum in Wales, the game being played by Westminster Labour is pretty clear. Everything will be put into the deep freeze for now and the election fought on the claim that only Labour can deliver on further devolution in an attempt to try and shore up their vote. This either buys another few years of time in which to do nothing if Labour gets re-elected, or leaves the whole thing for the Conservatives to deal with should they run out winners.

Except, neither Plaid nor the SNP have played ball. The Scottish Government has draft orders in place which would allow for Calman to proceed without any need for further delay. Meanwhile, with Rhodri Morgan due to stand down, Plaid have the option of refusing to back any Labour candidate for the First Ministership who opts to backslide on this aspect of the coalition deal.

But why might Labour, other than its innate conservatism and reluctance to concede any more devolution than it absolutely must to fend off the electoral threat of the nationalists, be so keen to put the brakes on? The answer may lie very close to home, with echoes to be heard in the increasingly shrill cries against holding an independence referendum in Scotland.

Firstly, there's the problem for all of the unionist parties, but particularly for Labour, of being seen to support a Welsh referendum while ruling one out in Scotland. It's a position which holds precisely zero credibility. With public support for a referendum already high, it's a contradiction with which the SNP would need no encouragement to make hay over.

However, the ramifications run so much deeper. Think on the 'neverendum' argument posited by unionists as a reason why Scots shouldn't even be permitted to hold a first vote. Joyously, in section 103 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, it is made clear that if a majority of Welsh voters do not back the transfer of primary legislative powers, this does not prevent Westminster from laying the orders necessary to hold a further referendum in the future.

In just one paragraph, the Labour party in Government, and the Lib Dems who supported the bill on its passage, have enshrined explicitly in legislation the principal that there should be no time bar on holding a subsequent referendum if people vote against. Scotland can't get a vote on further constitutional change, but the Welsh can have as many votes as they like until they deliver what the government considers to be the right answer. Thus, by Labour and the Lib Dems own hands, the neverendum argument, such as it ever was, is killed stone dead.

The timescales promise to be similarly glorious, at least from an SNP perspective since all parties in Wales seem still to be contemplating a referendum prior to 2011. Compare and contrast this position with the unionist advanced argument in Scotland that constitutional ‘navel gazing’ (Calman presumably excepted) is the ‘wrong’ thing to do in a recession. In Wales, we will shortly be hearing the counter argument from a Lib/Lab/Con alliance that only with the further transfer of powers can the measures needed to counter the downturn adequately be taken.

If the Welsh Assembly backs a referendum by the required 2/3rds majority, the Welsh First Minister has to give notice of this in writing to the Secretary of State. The clock then starts ticking – the Secretary of State then has 120 days to either lay a draft of a statutory instrument containing an Order in Council before each House of Parliament, or give notice in writing to the First Minister as to why they are refusing to do so.

If this Assembly vote happens prior to the election, say in mid February 2010, it means that the first thing a Welsh Secretary will have to do post-election is decide whether or not a referendum can go ahead. Whether that person be Labour or Tory, even assuming that matters don't move quite so quickly, it seems likely that just as the unionist parties carry out their threat in Scotland to vote down a referendum bill, the issue will be resurrected almost immediately when matters come to a head in Wales.

Gloating is seldom an attractive trait in politics, but then again, neither is the defence of blatant double standards. Thanks to this piece of three year old legislation, the unionists have slayed every single argument that ever passed their lips against the principal of a referendum on constitutional change, on the principle of having future votes if required and on the principle of having a referendum during an economic downturn.

Peter Hain is due to visit Wales tomorrow, and will doubtless come under intense pressure to explain firstly why today's statement was made, and secondly, to state whether he backs the position as set out this afternoon by The First Minister and his Deputy. It should be fun to watch, but not nearly as much fun as it will be to see Scotland's unionists squirming over why Scotland should be denied a referendum just as the Welsh seem set to prepare to go to the polls.

The twisting and turning in the months ahead will be simply exquisite to watch. Now where's that popcorn?

UPDATE: Plaid Candidate Heledd Fychan seems mildly amused by it all as well...

15 comments:

voiceofourown said...

Explosive stuff, Richard. I await developments with malicious glee.
I just fear that the unholy and corrosive alliance in Scotland between the press and Labour has so stunted our confidence and sense of adventure that it won't be long before we see a poll informing us that a majority in Scotland no longer want a referendum.
I'm hoping that is merely my innate pessimism rearing it's ugly head but it does seem a possiblility to me.
Given that people in democracies almost invariably support referendums, it would be interesting to speculate why if that ever came to pass.

Aye We Can ! said...

very good post. I hope the SNP and others make the most of your analysis.

Labour remember will also go into the general election offering a UK wide referendum on the ATV voting system. A system near no one understands and ever fewer support. Just what is needed to fight the recession!

Allan said...

Excellent post, exposing another facet of New Labour's double standards...

Lallands Peat Worrier said...

Told you so! Well not exactly, but...

Still, yon is a nice, sour flinger of a tomato which is predictably ripening maliciously.

Richard Thomson said...

Cheers guys.

AWC - I'd forgotten all about the ATV referendum. As you say, just what we need at this time :-)

Liberal for Life said...

What are you lot havering about now?

Far from being "explosive stuff", lets be honest this is yet another damp squib. Your utterances are falling on so many deaf ears that sadly you are all too brainwashed to understand.

The people of Scotland are getting more and more fed up with your persistent navel gazing on this issue. Instead of focussing your rather narrow-minded wits on the problems of today you desire yet another argument on the constitutional question when all the time the advance of democracy in line with clear LibDem principles is underway, despite you. First devolution and next Home Rule with enhanced fiscal powers that will rest with LOCAL accountability federal style. Not just in Scotland and Wales but also in England.

Thats the reality so accept the inevitable and then take a closer look at your core political opinions and realign within one or other of the mainstream UK parties. That should prove interesting for yourselves as well as to outside political observers like me.

Richard Thomson said...

Hello again Galen,

As the Lib Dem Westminster Candidate in Banff and Buchan, you are surely being too modest in describing yourself as an 'outside political observer'. Accordingly, I wonder if you'd be prepared on behalf of your chosen party, to address the following points?

1. Your party is supportive of a referendum on further powers in Wales, yet against one on further powers in Scotland. As a representative of your party, are you prepared to explain why this is so?

2. An advance of democracy certainly appears to be underway. While I'd never deny the pedigree of the Lib Dems when it comes to Home Rule, even the most partisan of observers would surely have to acknowledge the role of the SNP, past and present, in moving Scotland to the position where all parties are now at least open to the possibility of further devolution?

3. In the spirit of trying to meet you half way, I think a system of federalism incorporating substantial powers over tax, borrowing and spending would be a vast improvement on present UK arrangements. However, it's not something which can be imposed on an unwilling England. How, briefly, do the Lib Dems envisage a UK federation operating in practice, and how do you see England fitting into this setup? How does your party intend building the consent needed, either for an English Parliament, or for the regional assemblies in England which would be needed for federalism to work?

Here's your chance to potentially win some converts. Over to you...

Neil said...

I just saw the term "LibDem principles" in a comment. I didn't know they had any!

Richard Thomson said...

[Trombone slide and cymbal clash]

:-)

Liberal for Life said...

Hello again Richard
I like easy questions, so in answer

1) The Welsh Assembly has very restricted voting/decision making powers relative to the Scottish Parliament as you well know. The referendum is required to address that shortfall and bring it more into line with Holyrood. Its not about breaking up the UK so we can support this no problem.

2) The SNP position has helped ensure our position is seen as the most reasonable and sensible in comparison, I'll give you that.

3)Again, even the other two mainstream conservative partys in the UK parliament are gradually shifting ground (despite the SNP). Hopefully the process will be speeded up when we add a large tranch of new MP's to our current 63 at the next general election to hold sway and thereby ensure radical constitutional change occurs both in terms of PR but also in re-defining the new federal states throughout the UK.

I trust this is an adequate response to help encourage you to vote Liberal Democrat at the next general election?

regards
Galen
PS and Neil - I reckon its time you read the history books - what goes round comes around, eventually!

Richard Thomson said...

The Welsh Assembly has very restricted voting/decision making powers relative to the Scottish Parliament as you well know. The referendum is required to address that shortfall and bring it more into line with Holyrood. Its not about breaking up the UK so we can support this no problem.

OK, so doing nothing which might allow for the prospect of Independence takes precedence, at least for you personally. There's still an inconsistency there in allowing the people of Wales a say in a referendum while arguing that the people of Scotland should be denied a similar vote. So my support for giving people a say is absolute while your support is conditional.

The SNP position has helped ensure our position is seen as the most reasonable and sensible in comparison, I'll give you that.

If you say so, but I find your eliding of this question disappointing. Can't you find it in yourself to acknowledge the role that the SNP has played in moving forward the self-government debate without feeling you have compromised yourself in some way? I can't imagine great Liberals such as Neil Ascherson or the late Ludovic Kennedy being so partisan, somehow.

Again, even the other two mainstream conservative partys in the UK parliament are gradually shifting ground (despite the SNP). Hopefully the process will be speeded up when we add a large tranch of new MP's to our current 63 at the next general election to hold sway and thereby ensure radical constitutional change occurs both in terms of PR but also in re-defining the new federal states throughout the UK.

So, in essence, your response is 'vote Lib Dem and it'll all work out fine'. In terms of seeking party advantage, that's fine. It's not much of a strategy for achieving your stated aims, though, which is what my question was aimed at trying to uncover.

Out of interest, what would be your preference? An English parliament or regionalisation? And what if the response which comes from England is that no more change should take place? How do you propose to 'speed' the process along Lib Dem lines then?

I trust this is an adequate response to help encourage you to vote Liberal Democrat at the next general election?

Alas, no. You won't be finding me in your ranks any time soon - at least not this side of Independence :-)

Liberal for Life said...

Now Richard, be fair as even you didn't really expect me to support your call for a referendum on independence did you. That would be inconsistent with our stated policy during the 2007 campaign and when we state something is a policy we stick to our guns come what may despite the brickbats from fainthearts and seperatists like you.

As we know the SNP formed a minority government which we refused to engage with because they would not drop their insistence in pursuing that policy pledge despite the fact we know they gained power with no genuine mandate to pursue that particular policy. Seperation from the rest of the UK is so clearly opposed by the majority of Scots - and that opposition is growing by the day again, as you also know. Giving people decison making responsibility for home affairs through devolved government is attractive to people and although its taken us a while we have achieved our goals through reasoned debate and engagement with the Labour party in particular. Perhaps they do fear you but its not a rational fear in our opinion and therefore its one you would have to ask their spokesperson about, not me.

Regarding your more sensible question regarding English Home Rule within the UK framework - I prefer the more sensible regionalisation route as the challenges facing the north, south, east, and west regions vary. Look at the German model if you must look for an equitable sized version of my personal preference.

On reflection let me share you a lesson I learned as a younger man like you. In the early 80's I had the privilege of hearing that great Liberal MP the late David Penhaligon address a meeting in the Banks of Ury Hotel, Inverurie when we were campaigning to win the seat from the real enemy ie the Tory party. Back then the SNP were widely regarded as the Tartan Tories and he reflected on the fact that the far end of his Cornish constituency was farther away from Westminster than Edinburgh. He expressed the reasoned opinion relating to Scottish seperation that the need for devolution was important for the whole country, not just Scotland. I understood it then and I still understand this is the way ahead for the whole UK.

Richard you really need to get a grip of your patriotic heart and reflect in your political head what kind of society you wish to live in - don't build barriers with our most natural allies, build a concensus that can achieve real progressive change to better our citizens lives and stop this incessant bickering that is endemic in the party your presently support.

You might actually enjoy the transition to reality - the "road to Damascus" is a long and winding trail but it does lead to somewhere better, believe me.

Thats why I'm Liberal for Life and not a narrow minded nationalist!

Ultimately we will Stop Nationalist Propaganda from destroying our peaceful union.

Galen

Richard Thomson said...

Now Richard, be fair as even you didn't really expect me to support your call for a referendum on independence did you.

OK, I take your point that it was a manifesto pledge. However, there remains an inconsistency, as I'm sure you can recognise. Given that Wales is likely to get its referendum in 2010 or 2011 at the latest, do you think your party will be willing to resolve that when it presents its 2011 Holyrood manifesto?

As we know the SNP formed a minority government which we refused to engage with because they would not drop their insistence in pursuing that policy pledge despite the fact we know they gained power with no genuine mandate to pursue that particular policy.

Not so fast... Your party refused even to enter into talks about talks unless the SNP dropped its desire for a referendum, when it had been made perfectly plain that the SNP was prepared to put the policy 'on the table', as it were. I think it's pretty clear that other figures in the background (hello, Tavish... hello Menzies) were pulling Nicol Stephen's strings on that one and that the game was to refuse a coalition with the SNP under any circumstances.

Regarding your more sensible question regarding English Home Rule within the UK framework - I prefer the more sensible regionalisation route as the challenges facing the north, south, east, and west regions vary. Look at the German model if you must look for an equitable sized version of my personal preference.

Germany is a good example, although the Spanish example is probably more in keeping in many respects with the way constitutional change happens in the UK. The difficulty is – and I make this point in the interests of a wider debate rather than to try and score a point – that England has so far, London excepted, shown little enthusiasm for regional government.

Resolving the 'English Question' goes right to the heart of the constitutional debate on the British archipeligo and regional government would go some way to removing some of the present frustrations which exist south of the border. However, there's a dearth of policy work on how this might work in practice, while all the discussion is centred upon the idea of England as a single political entity.

Your party has a lot of work to do, and persuading to engage in, before federalism can be made to 'fly' as a viable proposition.

On reflection let me share you a lesson I learned as a younger man like you. In the early 80's I had the privilege of hearing that great Liberal MP the late David Penhaligon address a meeting in the Banks of Ury Hotel, Inverurie when we were campaigning to win the seat from the real enemy ie the Tory party. Back then the SNP were widely regarded as the Tartan Tories and he reflected on the fact that the far end of his Cornish constituency was farther away from Westminster than Edinburgh. He expressed the reasoned opinion relating to Scottish seperation that the need for devolution was important for the whole country, not just Scotland. I understood it then and I still understand this is the way ahead for the whole UK.

David Penhaligon's geography might have been a bit out, but I take the political point being made, even if I still hold to the points above. For what it's worth, IMO he was probably the best leader your party never had.

Richard Thomson said...

Richard you really need to get a grip of your patriotic heart and reflect in your political head what kind of society you wish to live in - don't build barriers with our most natural allies, build a concensus that can achieve real progressive change to better our citizens lives and stop this incessant bickering that is endemic in the party your presently support.

I'm intrigued by what 'bickrering' you think is taking place in the SNP. If on the other hand you mean 'bickering' between the SNP and other parties, all I'll say is that healthy discussion is a prerequisite in a (deliberately uncapitalised) liberal democracy.

Anyway, while you say barriers, I say removing barriers to engaging directly with the wider world.

Think about it - every power you want to see under the control of a Scottish Parliament, local authority, community council or individual, I probably do as well. However, I don't see why it should exclude tax and benefits, defence policy, trade policy and the stance we adopt in the wider world. Put simply, in my view, there is no structure you can put in place which adequately represents Scotland when Scottish interests and those of the rest of the UK do not coincide.

You may counter that Scottish and UK interests will always and forever be indivisible from eachother, or it is right that one should occasionally be subordinate to the other in the pursuit of a greater good. I don't accept that argument, at least not in the context of a unified state, which is why I support independence. Where one set of interests is subordinated to another, that should be as a result of a decision between two or more governments, and not simply because one part of the island has more people than the other.

Britain is in the latter stages of post-imperial decline, and is led by a governing establishment which has shown little sign over the past century of recognising the fact.

Westminster is spectacularly ill-equipped to adapt, and the very way that politics and administration is conducted, from the concept of the Crown in Parliament and the outmoded bicameral structure based on patronage and privilege, right down to the voting system, mitigates against it ever being peopled by sufficient numbers with the will or ability to reform it from within. The 'British story' is no longer being written. There is no longer a compelling argument about why in a world of free trade, free markets and defence cooperation, the UK any longer needs to exist.

Ultimately, my view is that independence allows Scotland and the rest of the UK to cooperate where it is in our interests to do so, and to pursue alternative policies or alternative alliances where our interests do not coincide. It removes at a stroke the frustrations on both side of the border which threaten to sour a 'social union' which I value very much. I would accept federalism as a step along the way, but that's why I am in favour of independence – it provides always and forever a basis for government superior to all others when it comes to meeting the needs of the greater number of people who have opted to make their lives here.

You might actually enjoy the transition to reality - the "road to Damascus" is a long and winding trail but it does lead to somewhere better, believe me.

You've made a good stab at it, but if it's all the same, I think I'll leave you with every good wish to enjoy your version of reality. Apropros nothing, do I read correctly into your remarks that you might at one time have entertained sympathies towards independence?

Thats why I'm Liberal for Life and not a narrow minded nationalist!

Oh dear, and you were doing so well too! I may be many things, but I have never before been described as narrow minded. It should be possible for good people to disagree honestly over this subject while recognising the good intentions in both, surely?

Liberal for Life said...

I'm now all out of puff just reading your latest reponses.

Let me say in summary I do appreciate as best as I can where you are coming from in many aspects but its where you are going that I have some concerns on your behalf.

Freedom for me is not about so-called independence and rather than putting up these barriers in our heads we need to remove the ones that remain first. I know from my travails north and south of the border that what unites us is far far stronger than what divides us.

We Liberals recognise the Westminster model is long overdue a total revamp, thats why I refer to the other two as conservative parties. The attitude of the traditional Labour voters has and is continuing to change and theres a reasonable prospect of us making significant gains at their expense south of the border (where the debate is not muddied by the national seperatist debate the SNP want to engage in come what may), so we remain hopeful of delivering a proper constitution for the whole of the UK at long last. Thats remains our stated aim hence our reluctance to engage with seperatist referenda, cause that is all it is despite the multi-option trickery from Mr Salmond.

At the end of the day just remember who the real political enemy is in this coming election and focus more of your attention on them. At present I suspect the SNP government is getting a tad too close to them for comfort in Holyrood.

As an article in the Herald June 2007 first sensed it-

Indeed, the Tory and SNP election manifestos disagreed on everything from local income tax to the referendum on independence. But that hasn't stopped the Tories and the SNP doing deals on policy behind the scenes.

So Richard if you really want to help progress the "power to the (Scottish) people" situation in our small country then first learn who your natural allies are instead of engaging in this political manouevring that Mr Salmond enjoys and seems to prefer at every turn.

regards
Galen