Leanne Wood says it’s time for Wales to go its own Welsh way to social justice
We live in a time of rapid polarisation and political division. The President of the United States is free to support far-right and neo-Nazi groups while the American left brings an alternative politics to the forefront, even using the word ‘socialism’ in public discourse. All this in a country that only a few decades ago was having witch hunts against anyone associated with socialism.
On this side of the Atlantic, the same basic story is played out. The Brexit ‘debate’ has unleashed hard right British nationalist forces that have enabled ultra-neoliberals, free marketeers and billionaire financial pirates to take over the Westminster government under Boris Johnson. At the same time, Labour MPs, who for years have been undermining their own leader for the crime of trying to re-introduce socialist principles and values to his party, have found in Brexit a new way to attack Corbyn. What they want is a return to the grey economic consensus that lets capitalism off the hook.
Westminster and the traditional two-party system are in meltdown. It is no surprise, therefore, that we now see a new surge in support for Scottish and Welsh independence. Some who were formerly opposed to independence are becoming ‘indy-curious’ as a response to the rising culture of intolerance. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the endless civil war within Labour means that left opposition to the current nightmare is not possible at a British level. For Plaid Cymru and the SNP, this presents opportunities. But it also presents threats.
There are already four Welsh Brexit Party AMs who, with the Tories, are building the Brit-Nat narrative. This includes the argument our Senedd should be curtailed or even abolished. Furthermore, while Plaid Cymru has over-taken Labour for the first time in Welsh Assembly election polls, the Brexit Party is also polling in the 20% range.
To compound this, we can’t ignore economics. Like the SNP, Plaid Cymru have always recognised that the economic questions and arguments for independence must be answered and made firmly. We cannot forget that the reason we want independence is so that we can create more prosperity for all. We are a small nation rich in natural resources and the question as to whether we can support ourselves in the long run is a ridiculous one. Of course, we can. However, as independence stops being ‘a dream’ and starts to be a question of a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’, nailing down the detail as to how we get there is essential.
Wales currently spends over £13bn more than it raises in taxes (roughly 34% of total Welsh government spending). Of course, an independent Wales would not spend such large sums on the military and Westminster vanity projects, but we still face a huge gap that needs plugging.
I have always argued that our independence needs to be preceded by a phase of full control over the economic levers needed to rebuild and strengthen our economy. That, coupled with the political work of rebuilding our communities, by doing what needs doing ourselves and overcoming ‘dependence’ has been described as ‘real independence’. Real independence would lead to a full constitutional push for independence. The aim of approaching the journey in this way was to ensure that there would be no tax gap and therefore no requirement for more austerity from day one.
What if we can’t do it that way? What if we are in a situation where historical events over-take us and the Union disintegrates? The change in our circumstances and context requires a shift in our thinking.
The independence movement in Wales must begin the painstaking work of outlining detailed economic plans for a transition to independence.
The new growth surge in support for independence is uplifting. To ensure it is built upon, we need to take all of the powers and economic levers that we need to begin the task of building an independent economy as a matter of urgency. We should also be considering what radical reforms a Plaid Cymru government could introduce within the existing powers framework so that we can start working on reducing that gap in the mean-time.
I have every confidence that Plaid Cymru’s new leader and his team will be able to do this. One of Adam Price’s greatest strengths is that he is a Harvard-trained economist who has been looking at this question for years. Back in 2012, he authored a detailed analysis of the size of the funding gap and understands that popular support and economic planning and detail must go hand in hand. Following the scarcity of detail before the Brexit referendum, this understanding is essential.
People in Wales do not see independence as an end in itself. It is an opportunity to do our politics differently. I speak to people all the time who want to see a more open and tolerant society than the regressive, right wing politics Westminster is capable of producing.
They also want to see an end to the crippling austerity and endless free-market economics that puts property and finance before people and community. If open to it, people agree with me when I say that I want an independence that leads to a Wales where prosperity is shared fairly and where our people can benefit collectively from the fruits of our natural resources.
While our next-door neighbour continues down a dark hole of blaming and scapegoating immigrants, the poor and outsiders for the economic class war imposed on them by the very wealthy, Wales has an opportunity to build something so much better. We can do this, so what’s stopping us?
Leanne Wood has been the Plaid Cymru Welsh Assembly Member for Rhondda AM since 2016. From 2003 until then, she was the Plaid Cymru member for South Wales Central.