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Wales in a Changing UK: 2 - Jonathan Edwards MP

Union Flag alongside the Red Dragon at the Senedd Photo: ITV News Wales

This is the second of what I hope will be a series of articles looking at the question of how much power Wales should have over its own affairs, what effect events in Scotland have on change here and what impact change in both countries will have on the make-up of the United Kingdom in future.

The first article saw Conservative blogger Henry Hill set out the Unionist case for a Constitutional Convention to discuss fully what changes, if any, there should be to the way the nations of the UK are governed. You can read it here.

Below you'll find the view of Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards who agrees with the idea of a convention but for very different reasons.

Nationalism v unionism is now the main dividing line - Jonathan Edwards MP

Jonathan Edwards MP, Plaid Cymru Credit: Plaid Cymru

We are living in interesting times. Last week, the Labour Welsh Government responded to the Silk Commission making the case for the devolution of energy (apart from nuclear), policing and criminal justice. Plaid Cymru always welcomes converts to the cause of greater Welsh self governance, however the default opaque nature of unionist politics when it comes to the constitutional question runs deeply through the evidence.

The ‘in favour in principle’ but ‘sometime in the future’ is a convenient way to kick the clear growing aspiration of the people of Wales for greater political control into the long grass, whilst simultaneously allowing the unionist parties to resolve their deep divisions and internal contradictions on the constitutional question.

Two seismic political events since the last Westminster election have led to a crisis in unionism. Firstly, the incredible SNP victory in the last Scottish Parliamentary elections. Plaid’s sister party gained 32 constituency seats in the election – 22 from Labour, 9 from the Lib Dems, and 1 from the Tories. In an electoral system designed to stop one party control, the SNP managed to form a majority – which meant that the unionist veto which denied the people of Scotland a say on their future disappeared overnight.

The second event of course leads us home to Wales, and the overwhelming Yes vote in our referendum which transformed the National Assembly into a law making parliament. Subsequently successive opinion polls have shown a strong desire for greater self governance, and the Silk Commission is paving a timetable for further progress which could well be superseded by events in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The fact that there is now to be a referendum on Scottish independence is a psychological hammer blow to unionism. Indeed its effect will transcend the referendum itself, no matter the result.

Prior to 2011, it was nationalists that had to justify why they wanted a future outside the British State. Now for the first time unionists are having to justify why the union should continue. In the case of Wales, with relative GVA per head in the South Wales valleys hovering around 10% of the residents of inner London, it’s quite a hard sell. The only narrative available to the unionists is the “too poor, too stupid” line which will prove to be disastrous for the No campaign in Scotland.

Indeed the Scottish referendum shows that unionist politicians are dependant upon scare stories to make their case. My own view is that the Yes campaign will prevail in 2014 unless the No campaign are able to offer a positive, cohesive vision for the future of the union. In recent discussions with leading unionist figures in Scotland and London it has become clear to me that the No campaign will struggle to offer such a vision because even within the unionist parties there are deep divisions about what powers should reside where. Indeed the only unifying theme seems to be the growing little Englander Euro scepticism - once the spectator sport of only the extreme Tory right.

I wouldn’t put my mortgage on all three unionist parties agreeing on a common position before the autumn 2014.

This means that the choice facing the people of Scotland will be more powers through independence or the status quo. This makes the decision of the UK Prime Minister to agree to a legally binding Yes/No referendum somewhat of a gamble.

Surely, the safety first strategy would have been to agree some sort of devo max option, which has stratospheric polling approval.

However the need of the unionist parties for a joint positive vision is pressing - which is why some in their ranks, most notably the First Minister of Wales, have called for a constitutional convention. I sense in his case it has more to do with a state of panic in seeking guidance on the political tectonic plates that are currently shifting.

The national movement as well as being the political vehicle for Welsh independence is also a reformist force within the British state. There is indeed merit in a convention, if only to steer our unionist friends onto the road to Damascus.

The major division line in UK politics lies now between nationalism and unionism. We nationalists know exactly what we want, a partnership of equals between the nations of the British Isles. The question is how do unionists view the future?

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