These are momentous times in Wales. The referendum on March 3rd is a do-or-die test upon which Wales’ entire future hangs. This is a golden opportunity to protect Wales from the scary far-right ideologues of Westminster and to begin to rectify Wales’ abject, humiliating and negative relationship with England. Here is a once-in-a-generation chance, given to few countries in history, to peacefully take the only prize worth having in international geopolitics – a legislature – and so establish in Cardiff the first proper, law-making Welsh parliament for 600 years.
The question to be voted on is a no-brainer. Every single party in the Assembly is in favour of a ‘yes’ vote, even the Welsh Conservatives. They have direct experience of the current arrangements and are unable to avoid the glaring truth that the status quo is an unworkable, wasteful, bureaucratic mess. For that we have Tony Blair to thank. Obliged to hold the 1997 referendum by manifesto commitment and pressure from Welsh Labour, Blair permitted Wales only a few crumbs of token devolution. The power-mad control freak could not bring himself to sanction any weakening of the most centralised state in Europe, so set up a complex and farcical system in which the few areas devolved could never be actually tackled by the Assembly. The Welsh Assembly was set up to fail, by people hostile to the very concept of Wales. As a result, even for the most uncontroversial and minor issues Wales is obliged to go cap in hand to London with any proposal and wait for years while the ridiculously cumbersome Legislative Competence Order (LCO) machinery grinds into gear. This means that after thorough research, analysis and debate at the Assembly and the Welsh Office, permission to act is then required from the 600+ English MPs, from the unelected Lords and from nameless Whitehall functionaries – a level of scrutiny not called for at any other level of governance in the UK. Scotland and Northern Ireland, devolved at the same time as Wales, are not subject to such micro-management from London – and neither is the UK government itself, which grants itself licence to wage illegal wars, abolish public services, attack the weak and vulnerable and cook up any amount of badly considered, off-the-cuff policies without let or hindrance. The LCO farrago is profoundly insulting to Wales and the Welsh people, treating us as uniquely untrustworthy, incompetent and incapable.
Such arrangements are found nowhere else on the planet. Throughout the democratic world regional devolution is the unremarkable norm, from the federal states of the US through to the semi-autonomous Länder of Germany. But Wales is compelled to negotiate an impossible obstacle course to implement measures that London has no interest in and that will only affect Wales anyway. Frequently policies unanimously supported in the Assembly disappear into a Whitehall black hole, left to gather dust in some pending tray for years. The completely undemocratic, utterly discredited cabal of expenses-fiddlers, moonlighting millionaires, lobby fodder, agents of big business, class warriors and trumped-up flunkies of Westminster treat Wales with utter contempt, when in fact these crooks should be taking lessons in law-making from us: the codified laws of Hywel Dda (c880-950), a body of wisdom that is one of the splendours of civilisation, were being enacted in Wales centuries before anything equivalent in Europe and when the only law in London was Might is Right.
Should there be a yes vote next week, the Assembly would still have less control over Welsh affairs than Scotland or Northern Ireland have over theirs, and nothing approaching the autonomy enjoyed by other parts of the British Isles like the Isle of Man and the various Channel Islands. And the three great signifiers of a nation state – foreign policy, the exchequer and primary law-making powers – would still be retained by London. But at least the 20 spheres of Welsh government already devolved would at last be placed under the direct democratic control of the Welsh people and the country can begin to express its unique voice, form its unique responses to the challenges of the modern world, replace the mutually debilitating English sneer/Welsh whinge relationship with something more constructive, and put some distance between itself and the failed British state. Looking at the Con-Dem coalition’s plans for education, the NHS and local government, this is now a matter of extreme urgency.
We have already seen the difference Welsh self-government can make in the Assembly’s first 12 years, despite the crippling handicap of having no real power. To see the difference, you only have to compare the Blair/Brown Labour governments in London with the simultaneous Rhodri Morgan/Carwyn Jones Labour-led coalitions in Cardiff (Wales, unlike the UK, has fair proportional representation, so no party has distorted hegemony). Rhodri may have had buffoonish tendencies, but compared to Blair he was a beacon of humanity, intelligence, originality and statesmanship. Carwyn may be a touch bland, but compared to Brown he was a pillar of rectitude, honesty and sanity. Put him up against Cameron/Clegg and he is in a different league. In policies on such as prescription charges, pensioners’ rights, child support, sustainable development, museum charges, quangos, school league tables, NHS organisation, transport infrastructure, cultural support and countryside access the various Assembly governments have shown qualities of sensitivity, maturity, responsiveness, common sense and good judgement that the poor electorate of England can only dream of. And this with one hand tied behind their back and the LCO ball-and-chain hindering their every initiative.
Who, then, could possibly vote no given such a choice? Just check out the no campaign and all is revealed. Essentially it is run by far-right British Nationalists, heavily featuring the disgusting racists of the BNP and the barmy Little Englanders of UKIP. They object to any sliver of Welsh self-determination on two grounds: firstly because Wales has always delivered a left-of-centre majority in elections and thus a bridge-head for – gasp! – socialism might be established on this septic isle, showing the English a perhaps tempting alternative to being always shat on by their rulers; and secondly the only sovereignty these people will accept is ‘British’ (ie English, since they make up 85% of the UK population). So it’s no to the United Nations, no to the European Union, no to strong local government and no to Wales, because to these superannuated, blinkered colonialists only one level of governance is acceptable. Nothing touches their imperialist nerve as profoundly as the prospect of England easing its vice-like grip on its very first colony. What they really want is the abolition of the Assembly altogether, since Wales’ continued existence is a discomfiting reminder that the British state is not some God-given entity but an abnormal, recent and artificial creation, forged by violence, built on theft, enriched by global plunder and now sustained by the organised crime of international money-laundering, tax evasion and corporate greed. Should Welsh voters let these appalling Wales-haters triumph on March 3rd, either because of ignorance, self-loathing, apathy or just too many years of being spoon-fed poisonous misinformation, it would be the most perverse result in the history of referendums, Wales would be a global laughing-stock and we will deserve everything we get.
But should we turn out in numbers and deliver the overwhelming yes vote we owe to past generations, to future generations, to ourselves, to our sorely abused English neighbours and, yes, to the world, then there is a chance, at last, to unleash Welsh potential and clinch Welsh status, prosperityand influence for all time. I do not have the faintest idea what the result will be. The London newspapers and TV channels, the sole source of news for 90% of the Welsh population, have barely mentioned the referendum at all and there is scarcely a campaign worth the mention in Wales itself – I have received a grand total of one leaflet through my door. A miniscule turn-out is inevitable, given that most people are unaware any vote is taking place. When turn-outs are low, every single vote counts. In the few days remaining it is incumbent on all Welsh people of good faith to urge friends, family and neighbours to get out there and vote yes next Thursday.
There is a palpable tension in Cardiff’s dank February air as decision day approaches. Wales is at a crossroads; we must have the heart and the head to take the untravelled road, to assert that things can be other than how they’ve always been, and to tell the world that we are a fine people, a people who have yet to be heard, a people who are now ready to associate in harmony and partnership with the free and equal peoples of the Earth.