Devolution

It is probable that I write more about politics on this blog than I would perhaps like. Part of the reason I’d rather not is that I assume people have spent a lot of time thinking about politics and that the arguments for positions are well known and at least understood, even if not agreed with. For example ‘Question Time’, where politicians avoid answering questions from the audience and other panellists often stand out by actually expressing their opinions. What sometimes seems clear is members of the public not really understanding the issue and quite often it seems that politicians don’t understand either. In the case of politicians there is a least the suspicion that they do understand but hide this for some reason, yet in the case of members of the public it is likely that such misunderstanding is genuine.

I wrote a while ago about why Plaid Cymru, seem to struggle to make electoral progress in the face of an under-performing Labour administration in the Welsh government and probably the worst government in history at the UK level. Plaid Cymru are saddled with the impression that they are nationalists and are only for speakers of Welsh, neither of which is really the case. Furthermore, in the light of the forthcoming UK European Union (EU) membership referendum, the issue of why people can be in favour of withdrawal from one union, the UK, yet be in favour of continued membership of another, the EU. Superficially, there is a point, it seems contradictory, but it isn’t at all.

I am surprised by this misunderstanding, perhaps a lot of people don’t understand what the argument for devolution is about. This lack of understanding is not  merely Unionist political spin. In any case isn’t wishing to leave one union, the EU, yet be in favour of retaining another, the UK, also superficially inconsistent. Perhaps there is a similarity in logic, in principle, but the two positions are far part practically and ideologically
Personally I am in favour of independence for Wales as things stand, but would not describe myself as a nationalist. The argument for devolution is all about democracy

Devolutionists believe that political power should belong with the people, that power is granted to central bodies from local communities with consent  (and can be withdrawn if necessary) and gain mutual benefits and efficiencies of working at larger scales and that decisions should be made as locally as practicable.

The argument is that the Welsh economy could do better if freed from the restraints of a UK government that favours the financial sector (which is very small in Wales) and supports the economy of South East England, to the detriment of everybody else. Wales is now one of the, if not the poorest, region in Northern Europe. Wales used to be one of the wealthier regions, this wealth was generated from the coal and steel industries, though arguably much of the actual wealth went to London, rather than staying in Wales.

Modern economies are cyclical, with periods of growth and recession. The role of government is perhaps to attempt to manage this, by sustaining growth by not allowing the economy to expand too quickly and then acting to boost the economy to minimise the effects of recession. In larger states, such as the UK, a problem is that the economy is divided into regions with different local economies. In the UK there is a divide between the South East of England and everywhere else. So, what has happened is that when the South East is growing too quickly, interest rates were raised to control this expansion. The problem with this is that the rest of the UK, is only just entering into a growth phase and this expansion is prevented by UK fiscal policy. This would not be so much of a problem if the state, the UK acted to mitigate the imbalances, but this isn’t really done and the media often suggest it is the rest of the UK’s fault that it is relatively poor, rather than simply admit it’s part of how large states work.

In Wales, we remember the Miners dispute of the early 1980s. The argument for closing the mines wasn’t terrible. The mines were basically just about paying their way and not making a profit as the international price of coal fell. so the idea that closing them, so the workers could then do something more productive made sense. However, infrastructure was not put in place of the mines, opportunities for enterprise were not provided. So, what happened instead of communities breaking even, the communities of the South Wales valleys lived off unemployment benefits from central (UK) government. So in reality, closing the mines cost the UK money, and made living in the valleys more depressing than when there was high employment. Arguably there was also an agenda about attacking the power of the trade union movement, so it didn’t really matter about the valleys, the end justified the means, it allowed South East England to prosper, but of course it does matter, especially if you live in Wales!

Part of the issue is the problem of centralisation. Centralising things can confer benefits and great efficiencies however centralising creates executive elites which creates problems for the majority not in the elite. Imagine a political union as much like a club, I’ll use the example a sailing club.

People can join a sailing club by paying an annual membership fee. In return members receive benefits, such as use of club boats, training, social events and opportunities to enter competitions. The point of being a member is that it is much cheaper to be a member rather than do it all by yourself, which would be more expensive. So, like any club an executive committee is elected to run the club, which regularly meet together to organise the running of the club. Generally, the committee will be the more committed sailors, people who make the most use of club facilities, do more sailing and generally get more out of  their membership fee, than a more casual member. This can become a problem if the committee or elite start running the club for their own benefit, because the ordinary member will remain a member even if it is only slightly better to be a member than paying for everything themselves. They may even consider leaving the club in such circumstances, but refrain because of the high costs of buying their own boat. However if anyone is overly greedy, they would be likely to find themselves voted out of office at the next Annual General Meeting (AGM).

If it is imagined that this sailing club is compared to an international political union, many parallels become apparent. As I argued above, the UK does have an executive elite that serves it’s own interests rather than the good of the membership/citizenry generally and an electoral system that makes it difficult to boot out the elitists. So, with the case of say Welsh independence from the UK, there would be huge costs of separation for Wales: new systems such as  new tax systems, new laws and a new judicial system, new systems for businesses and individuals and costs due to economic uncertainty from the wider international community. However, where membership of a union is more costly than independence, in the long term, the country would be better off governing themselves. Of course Wales would not exist in isolation, it would then wish to cooperate for mutual benefits with the wider international community, but would at least do it on it’s own terms and have the political infrastructure to withdraw from any agreement that didn’t have a net benefit. Having the means to leave relatively easily, encourages the union to look after all it’s members.

So, my ideal would be for a maximum amount of devolution, self-determination, the political systems for independence to remain in place and a functional representative democracy. Then international agreements can be entered into and left when there is a benefit for doing so. It is still possible this way to enter into wide ranging agreements where there is a net cost in some areas and benefits in other areas. Cooperation can use the existing political infrastructure, provided it is not removed.

Perhaps a difficulty with long terms unions, such as the UK or the EU, is there is a tendency to lose local systems to central authorities, for example the European Central Bank for Eurozone (EZ) countries and it seems that such arrangements are difficult to leave. I would argue that the ability to leave is central for such cooperation to work.

In the proverbial nutshell, membership of international agreements should be based on a rational assessment of the benefits and costs for the economy as a whole, as long as there is a net benefit of membership, you join to stay a member.

My arguments for Welsh independence, stem simply because I am Welsh. I would be just as in favour of a new federal state formed of say, Wales, South West England, Northern England, Scotland and possibly Ireland, the similarities in the economies would enable a strong beneficial union. The argument for devolution is universal.

So, to answer the question of why you can argue for more independence from the UK, whilst arguing for continuing membership of the EU. The simple answer is that there is a net benefit from EU membership, but not from  UK membership

A longer answer is that the UK keeps (mysteriously) electing Conservative governments, whose policies don’t help Wales or it’s economy, they actually make it gradually worse. Wales exists in a political union where the electorate are governed by political parties that don’t command a majority in Wales. So, independence would free Wales to run it’s own economy , have a more representative government and improve it’s GDP.
So, why do devolutionists want to remain in the EU? Because the EU is a slow cumbersome organisation, that doesn’t change things rapidly in reaction to current media trends. When it does make a policy is more general as it has to work across most of the EU, so tends to have a less negative effect on the Welsh economy than a UK decision, the bias towards some regions found in the UK is less at an EU level.
Whilst devolutionists want democracy and local power, they are also internationalists who believe in cooperation for mutual benefit, to work together with neighbours and partners for mutual benefits, rather than be dictated to by centralised governments we have no influence over. The EU does lack democratic accountability, this is it’s main failing, but hopefully this can be rectified, although this may take some time, it needs to be the priority. The oil of common systems and regulations is generally beneficial and to some extent buffers the desire of individual governments to remove benefits for ordinary members to serve their own elites.

So really, I seek an independent Wales in a heavily reformed, more democratic EU and a close relationship with rUK, working together for mutual advantage, with common systems where there is a net benefit to ordinary people or the wider economy. Basically the idea is establish democratic control first, then cooperate, rather than just grumble about the problems of a centralised dictatorial elite.
I have written quite a long answer, but I hope you would agree at least that there is an argument for leaving the UK, but remaining in the EU, though you may disagree and see the balance of benefits and costs differently for each possible union.
If the UK was a fully federal, level playing field, I would not be arguing to leave the UK as then the benefit of being a member of bigger state would be mutually advantageous. If the EU becomes even more dictatorial I would advocate leaving that too. It all about the balance of power, whether the advantages outweigh the benefits, and they constantly change.
The whole EU remain/leave referendum is not a simple question at all and does bring the  question of devolution and democracy to prominence.

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