“Devolution is a disaster” were the reported words of Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson, referring to the Scottish government and “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”.
In fact, Blair was a reluctant devolutionist. He would rather not have held referenda to devolve power to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament in 1997.
But, having included them in his manifesto, he was forced to go through with them, and intended devolution to cut across the rise in national consciousness in Wales and Scotland.
He later cursed the Welsh working class (“f****** Welsh!”) who rejected Alun Michael, his imposed first minister in the initial Assembly elections, when many protest-voted for Plaid Cymru.
From the point of view of the Tory party, Johnson is right to curse devolution today. The limited powers of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments have restricted the imposition of Tory rule and blunted the edge of some of their policies in some areas. Although both governments have failed to prevent Tory austerity being imposed.
However, devolution has not stemmed increasing support for independence in the two nations, as Blair and Gordon Brown intended.
The centrifugal forces tearing apart the UK have increased as a decade of austerity has undermined the capitalist national settlement.
As working-class and many middle-class people feel the effects of a relentless decline in living standards, they are looking for ways out of the crisis.
Johnson’s ham-fisted opposition to devolution and his attempt to roll it back are adding fuel to the fire.
A previous Tory prime minister, David Cameron, hoped to settle the issue of Scottish independence for good with a decisive ‘no’ vote to independence in 2014, but the referendum campaign ignited a mass movement mobilising big sections of the working class. Polls in Scotland in the last year have shown a consistent majority for independence.
The Scottish National Party (SNP), which calls for independence and has been in power in Scotland for 13 years, won 48 out of 59 Scottish seats in the general election last year.
In Wales, the situation is more complicated. The failure of the Welsh Labour government to defend public services from Tory austerity, instead of implementing the cuts on the Tories’ behalf, has polarised opinion on devolution.
On the one hand, there has been a certain growth in support for abolishing the Senedd (Welsh parliament) among some older workers regarding it as a big waste of money that has achieved no improvement to public services or living standards, which right populists from Ukip and no doubt Farage’s new party will attempt to latch onto. In recent polls, over 20% have supported the abolition of the parliament.
But on the other hand, there has also been a bigger growth of support for independence in Wales – 46% of 16-24-year-olds and a quarter of all voters saying they would vote ‘yes’ in an independence referendum, and the development of a growing independence campaign around Yes Cymru.
And these centrifugal tendencies will be intensified by the actions of the Johnson government, which even before the Covid crisis was attempting to use Brexit as a way of regaining central control over the nations by undermining devolved powers.
The UK government is hoping to use the Internal Market Bill (IMB) to enforce the policies of the UK government on the devolved nations.
In a similar fashion to the operation of the European Union’s single market, the bill would mean that no government would have the legal power to enforce regulations on companies operating in their devolved area if they are based in another part of the UK.
That would mean that English companies would be bound by English regulations when operating in Wales or Scotland. So the limited reforms won in the devolved areas from the pressure of working people could be undermined.
For example, the very weak laws in Wales to control bad landlords (which should be strengthened to implement rent control and secure tenancies) could be completely undermined by the IMB because landlords would merely have to register over the border in England to be governed by English housing laws in Wales.
If the devolved governments accepted this, with England as the dominant economic power in the UK, in effect many English Tory laws and regulations would be imposed on Wales and Scotland in a new race to the bottom.
The reversal of even limited reforms in Wales and Scotland by the IMB are bound to increase support for independence.
Similarly, Johnson is moving to seize control of the funding that will replace the EU’s European Social Fund to assist economic development in depressed areas in Wales and Scotland. Wales is the biggest recipient of these funds in the UK (and in Western Europe).
The fact that large parts of Wales are still in receipt of these funds 25 years after they were begun is an indication of their failure to improve the economy because they were strictly prevented from being used to improve public services or subsidise industry.
Instead, they actually took funding from public services by requiring match-funding from the Welsh budget.
Brexit could have potentially given the Welsh government the opportunity to use these funds for meaningful public investment in sustainable energy, environmental projects, transport and health projects that could create some real jobs.
Instead, the Johnson government is insisting on controlling the funds and spending them from Whitehall, bypassing the Welsh government and the Senedd, and imposing Tory policies on Wales.
It threatens to return Wales to 1997 when the country was run by a Thatcherite ‘quangocracy’. Unelected Tory party members were placed onto the boards of quangos like the Welsh Development Agency, which made decisions on a range of Welsh services and projects, answerable only to their masters in Westminster, before being abolished by the Welsh Assembly in 1999.
The limited powers of the Welsh parliament would be further reined in. As the Tory projects imposed free-market policies, outsourcing and privatisation on working people, it would inevitably give a further twist to the democratic deficit of Tory policies being foisted on the working class in Wales.
And then the Covid crisis further intensified the dissatisfaction with the constitutional status quo.
The governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh appear relatively competent compared to the bungling and incompetence of the Johnson government in Westminster. Opinion polls in Wales and Scotland indicate more confidence in the devolved governments’ handling of the crisis than the UK Tory government.
It has undermined the prestige of British capitalism and reinforced the idea in both nations that “we are better off going our own way”.
In Wales, the pro-union Labour government has gained 11% relative to the Tories, but support for independence has solidified even though Welsh Labour opposes it. In a September poll, 39% of Labour voters in Wales would vote ‘yes’ in a referendum on independence.
Of course, this appearance of competence is an illusion. The bungling and corruption of the Johnson government on Covid has set a very low bar – delivering one of the highest death rates in the world, and the biggest economic downturn in the G7.
And both the Drakeford and Sturgeon governments have followed parallel paths to this disastrous UK policy.
In Wales and Scotland, the governments have been responsible for the same shortages of PPE; they failed to protect the care homes at the outset of the crisis; they have failed to deliver adequate testing systems (the Welsh health minister initially ignored the public labs in Wales and instead opted to use the UK private Lighthouse pop-up labs, with predictable results); they insisted on reopening schools without the requisite safety measures in place, and they forced students to move into crowded university halls in exactly the same way as the Tories in England.
Both Welsh and Scottish governments concurred with the myth that school students cannot transmit the virus, to allow schools to reopen even earlier than in England, instead of putting in the safety measures that would have allowed a safe return.
And previous cuts to NHS spending have left it unprepared for the crisis – Wales has less intensive care unit beds per head than any nation in Europe.
In Scotland, Sturgeon has been quite adept at using Covid measures to highlight the blunders of the Tory government and attack rule from Westminster.
But the pro-unionist Welsh government has been at pains to try and make the four-nation approach work, and not to attack the UK government, even though the Tories have increasingly disregarded the limited safety measures the Welsh government has taken.
Even the refusal in October of the UK chancellor to extend the furlough in the Job Retention Scheme to the Welsh fire-break was met with only mild protest by the Welsh government.
The Tories insisted that Welsh workers would have to make do with the Job Support Scheme that provided less support.
But just two weeks later, when England went into lockdown, the Job Retention Scheme was revived and extended to all areas in the UK under lockdown.
The cabal of advisors around Johnson, led by Dominic Cummings, wanted to re-shape the British government into a right-wing centralised state, a project that is continuing even after Cummings’ departure.
They have adopted the slogan of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: “Move fast and break things”. But they are threatening to break the UK.
For British capitalism that once ruled a quarter of humanity, the break-up of its nation-state would be a severe blow. But if Johnson wanted to increase support for independence he couldn’t do a better job. The likely victory of the SNP and pro-independence candidates in the Scottish Parliament elections in May will starkly pose the issue of a second referendum that Johnson would want to refuse, and could spark a large, radical, pro-independence movement.
In Wales, the results of the election are much less certain. Support for Plaid Cymru has been rising, but not as fast as support for independence. But the movement in Scotland will have a much greater effect on Wales than the 2014 referendum struggle.
Growing support for independence in Scotland and in Wales is an indication of a desire for social change – a way to get control and a find an exit from the deep crisis in society.
The task of Marxists is to give a socialist content in the struggle for national rights and link it to the class demands of the working class for public services, jobs and a decent minimum wage.
Socialist Party Wales supports autonomy for Wales – for the Welsh Parliament to have full law-making and tax-raising powers that would allow it to pass measures that can change society.
We support the right for Wales to also have a multi-question referendum including the option to vote for independence. But above all, we call for a struggle to fight austerity by the Welsh government, led by the trade union movement and linking up with Scottish and English workers for a socialist change.
We support a socialist Wales as part of a voluntary socialist federation of Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland.
Both Welsh Labour and the SNP have proved themselves incapable of defending the working class. Our task is to build new workers’ parties and inscribe on their banner the demands for socialism and the right for national self-determination.