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Is England up for it?

The slow but steady break-up of the United Kingdom signals a new progressive nationalism in Wales as well as Scotland, argues Plaid Cymru Welsh Assembly member Leanne Wood. It could also open up new possibilities in England - but is the English left ready for them?

October 24, 2008
7 min read

Politics in Wales has changed dramatically in the past decade. We won the Yes vote in the referendum to set up the Welsh Assembly in 1997 by just 6,721 votes, but now it’s difficult to imagine now how devolution could be rolled back.

Tom Nairn has been arguing for more than 30 years (see Further reading, opposite) that the break-up of Britain is inevitable. He argues that devolution will gather its own, unstoppable momentum, and that the end of the United Kingdom as a unitary state will follow. The first, as yet unanswerable, question is: how long will the break up take? The second is: are the English left ready for it?

Devolution and the left

In Wales and Scotland, the left has grasped the opportunities offered by devolution. We have worked to develop a progressive civic nationalism. Our desire for social justice and equality forms an intrinsic part of our demand for further devolution. And by electing progressive civic nationalists, people in Scotland and Wales have shown that there is a growing recognition that the British union is not working for them.

So what are we doing in Wales? A year ago, Plaid Cymru entered into government for the first time in our history as part of a centre-left coalition with Labour. A key plank of that agreement was a commitment from Labour to deliver and campaign for a successful outcome in a referendum for a law-making parliament within this Assembly term. A date for this referendum has not yet been fixed but the commitment is that it should take place before 2011.

Opinion polls indicate that a majority of Welsh voters are in favour of a parliament with powers to make its own laws. If we get that Yes vote, we’ll still have only a fraction of the powers currently enjoyed by the Scottish Parliament. We will be able to legislate freely on matters currently devolved, which would be an improvement on the current situation where Westminster can veto Welsh laws. But we would still have no powers over criminal justice or any real macro-economic muscle. And we would still have no means to raise our own revenue. Nevertheless it would be an important step towards a becoming an independent nation within Europe.

Wales is at the bottom of the UK’s economic performance table. While Westminster continues to skew its economic policy to benefit the areas in its immediate vicinity, the periphery loses out. With a history of significant industrial production, Wales should now be rich, but the areas that produced the wealth for Britain are today among some of the most economically disadvantaged in the whole of the European Union. These are the areas that were targeted by Thatcher in her obsession to crush union power, then forgotten. And these are the areas that now face further decline from New Labour’s regional pay plans and purge of those on sickness benefits. It doesn’t have to be this way. An autonomous government responsible for two and a quarter million people could do a much better job of gearing macro-economic policy to meet the needs of people in the former industrial areas of Wales. It’s clear that those needs have not been considered by successive Westminster governments.

In Wales, the Plaid Cymru-Labour coalition government has firmly rejected privatisation in the NHS or the organisation of such services on market models. The ‘One Wales’ programme of government states: ‘We will guarantee public ownership, public funding and public control of this vital public service.’ In both Scotland and Wales foundation hospitals, school league tables, beacon councils, selective schools and elite academies have all been rejected. In Wales, NHS prescription charges and hospital car parking charges have been abolished.

Plaid Cymru and the SNP are introducing social policies that are clearly to the left of New Labour. Both parties are opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the removal of civil liberties in the name of security (including the introduction of ID cards) and Trident. Both parties have more progressive attitudes towards criminality and substance dependants and both are pro-council housing. Of course there is always more to be done – but what we are seeing are the beginnings of an alternative politics. Our civic nationalism is anti-imperialist, anti-racist and pro-social justice.

What will England do?

Meanwhile, the left in England has largely failed to respond to the challenges of devolution. Labour and many of the left parties have argued that Scottish and Welsh nationalism is regressive – a diversion that undermines British working class unity, which should be opposed. They refuse to acknowledge the inevitability of both countries becoming, at some point in the future, independent.

And when we leave the union, what will England then do? The loudest expressions of English national identity have until recently come from the far right. Often confusing Britishness and Englishness, theirs has been an imperialist, exclusive and racist nationalism, one that progressives rightly abhor.

But there are growing signs of progressive voices in England who are seriously addressing the issue of post-devolution English identity. Billy Bragg has been talking for some time about the need to develop a new identity in tandem with progressive social politics, while Mark Perryman has recently brought some interesting views together in his book Imagined Nation, which explores the possibilities for England after Britain.

Perryman’s book offers an alternative to British nationalism and the far right’s version of English nationalism. The contributors agree with Nairn about the inevitability of the break up of Britain, at the same time as being acutely aware of the danger posed by far-right solutions to the question. One contributor, Andy Newman, argues that the English left could learn a lot from the centre-left, pro-devolution politics that now dominates in Wales and Scotland. In those countries, he argues, the left has succeeded in combining ‘the democratic aspiration for national independence with the campaign for greater social equity and emancipation’. Newman draws the conclusion that for progressives in England ‘the most appropriate lesson to learn is that national identity, and even patriotism, can co-exist with working-class solidarity.’

Is the left up for it?

All too often, nationalism in Wales and Scotland has been dismissed by many on the left as narrow minded, inward-looking and exclusive. Those of us who have worked in the anti-war and the anti-fascist movements find it frustrating to be viewed in this way. Our work in those movements is enhanced by our understanding of the national question and by our internationalist outlook.

Our demand to be equal nations within the European Union (with acceptance of the limitations and problems of the EU, and a recognition of the need to build an alternative, pro-worker EU), is outward-looking. It’s no accident that the first non-white members of both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly represent the SNP and Plaid, and that our appeal to minorities is growing.

In the abstract, many British left groups support the right to self determination, but they oppose actively campaigning for Welsh, Scottish and English independence. As Newman argues: ‘It is precisely this rising English and Scottish national consciousness that promises to actually subvert the power of the British Empire state, and open up new political possibilities for significant social change.’

There is a great deal of potential to develop a much-needed new anti-imperialist, left political culture in England. Yet there is a very real danger that the far right will fill the vacuum as long as the left maintains its mental block.

Newman, Perryman and others are among many whose work is challenging long-held assumptions that counterpose national identity and working class solidarity. The end of Britain could signal a new beginning for socialist and green politics in England. The question is: is the left in England up for it?

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