Wales for Europe
South Wales ‘What Next?’ Conference
29 February 2020
First duty this morning is to say thank you to you all for the resolution and resilience that you have all shown in this cause, over at least the last three years.
Thank you for all the hours you have put in
- on street stalls with Brexitometers,
- pushing leaflets through letter boxes,
- marching whether here in Wales or in London
- Ed Sides marching from Wales to London
- and for your wit on posters and on social media.
It has been a wonderful demonstration of active citizenship. And I thank you all for that. We did not carry the day, but it was a fight worth fighting and it WILL have a positive legacy. It’s in this room.
As you know I have stood down as Chair of Wales for Europe. And I am delighted that everyone on the Executive Committee has been so supportive of the proposal that Helen Wales should take over in the interim while a permanent constitution is sorted out. I would like to thank Helen for all the effort and deep thought she has put into this campaign, as well as all the help she has given me and Heledd. Cardiff’s loss is Wales’s gain.
Now I don’t want to take up your time today by raking over the past. We could all have a lot of fun throwing darts at our favourite villains, on whatever side. We will all have agonised over the reasons for the defeat or tortured ourselves by imagining how it could have been different. But unless we can draw lessons for the future we will be wasting our time – as for the rest, keep it for the pub afterwards.
So this is my own personal checklist of lessons drawn from the experience:
- First, referendums are not an appropriate way of solving complex problems. I didn’t think it was right in 1979 when devolution was first put to the test. Referendums purport to offer a clear choice – a purported clarity that is entirely bogus – a dangerous siren call. But, sadly, every referendum is used to justify the next one.
- Second, we have resorted to referenda because the political system is failing. It’s the political system that needs addressing – whether it’s a voting system that is no longer fit for purpose, or the myopic half-hearted regulation of the funding of parties, of elections, of referenda and, particularly, of online campaigning. Currently, our political system is a badly run casino, where the management, once in power, cannot easily be held to account.
- Third, we have a voting system that doesn’t allow us to adopt mature and nuanced approaches to unprecedented complexity – to face the bombardment that rains down on society from every quarter – globalisation, technological change, the decline in manufacturing, the precariousness of employment, the unbridled primacy of finance, the effects of the crash of 2007-8, gross individual and regional inequalities, world wide movements of population, the rise of populism.
- Fourth, beware ‘take back control’. This is another beguiling phrase that too often means just the reverse. We are swapping real, profound, effective influence at a continental level in favour of an independent legal cosmetic. And paradoxically, ‘Take back control’ will also be used to put a brake on the development of the devolution settlement. And in the process that could easily lead to the break up of the UK.
- Fifth, any pro-European campaign is going to be a long one. It took 18 years – from 1979 to 1997 – to reverse a four to one vote against devolution. Today events may move things more quickly. Remember that the change of heart on devolution came not only because people banged on about it, but because the miners’ strike suddenly changed thinking within a political party and the public.
- Sixth, for campaign organisations the niceties of constitutions matter less than the content of the message and the effectiveness of its delivery. That is the case whether at the UK or the Welsh level. Constitutions can make a difference – they can shape unity or they can entrench disunity. We lost this campaign partly because of the narcissism of small differences at the London/UK level. We maintained unity in Wales
- Lastly, it is very difficult in Wales to get any message across to a broad public. Devolution was about correcting a big democratic deficit. But we have not been able to correct the media deficit. With the threat to the BBC that could get even worse.
So, in conclusion, we still have a battle to fight over the shape of Brexit. That may be decided this year or next. Beyond that – in the second phase – we are going to have to fight a much, much broader battle. It can’t only be about re-joining the EU – which may look very different in 20 years’ time – but, in my book, it will be about the tussle between European and American values in the organisation of our society. In that battle, Wales has a lot to gain and a lot to lose.
Our job will be to ensure that – whatever the colour of our passport – we maximise the gain and stay true to a Europeanism that is in our hearts and soul.