Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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?
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite