Wales needs to find its place in a federal Britain in the wake of the Scottish Independence Referendum

Western Mail

Former Welsh Secretary Peter Hain – one of Labour’s most senior figures – has urged his party to abandon its commitment to more cuts if it returns to government after May’s General Election.

Here, in the last of a series of extracts from his new book – Back to the Future of Socialism – Mr Hain turns his attention to the aftermath of the Scottish Independence Referendum, and how Wales must find its feet in a federal UK:

‘The aftermath of September’s fraught referendum and the new devolved powers promised for Scotland and Wales have left us facing an unanswered question: If Britain is to stay united, what should be its foundation, its purpose?

As the former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown argued in his compelling book, My Scotland, Our Britain, the division between separatists and unionists is not about patriotism: both pro- and anti- independence advocates rightly claim to be equally patriotic.

But the incontrovertible advantage of modern Britain is its 20th-century innovation: the pooling and sharing of risks and resources across the whole country to ensure common welfare and decent standards of life for all citizens, regardless of nationality or where you live.

At the heart of this have been ground-breaking decisions made at different crucial points of the 20th century – first introduced by Liberal governments and subsequently consolidated by Labour governments up until 2010 – ensuring common economic, welfare and social standards: common Britain-wide old age pensions; common British social insurance (sick pay, health insurance, unemployment insurance and labour exchanges); common British child and family benefits; a common British minimum wage; and a British system of equalising resources, so that everyone has the same political, social and economic rights, and not simply equal civil and political rights.

Pooling and sharing Britain’s resources also enables redistribution from richer to poorer parts – whether constituent parts of a nation like the coalfield communities of the South Wales Valleys or regions of England such as the North East.

With around 40 per cent of the country’s national wealth concentrated in London and the South East of England, separatists have no answer to what is essentially the democratic socialist case for maintaining the integrity of Britain: redistributing resources from its better to its less well-off parts, and guaranteeing equal opportunity and security for all British citizens regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability or faith.

That has meant that while inside the European Union the average income of the typical citizen of the poorest country is just 20 per cent of that of the richest country, and in the US the income of the poorest state is 55 per cent of that of the richest, the average income of the typical Scot is 96 per cent the average income of an English citizen; for Wales the figure is 87 per cent.

A universal right to free health care across Britain in the 1940s and, in the 1990s, a British-wide minimum wage and tax credits that guaranteed a minimum family income stopped regions and nations undercutting each other by offering incoming businesses a lower-paid workforce, thus preventing a race to the bottom between the nations and regions within Britain.

This sharing and redistribution of both resources and risks has therefore come to define the purpose of Britain, to secure cross-country, cross-region fairness and justice.

But, in turn, it means recognising the reality of a more “federal” Britain which I have long advocated and is supported by Labour, Liberal and Green politicians as well as a few thoughtful Conservatives, notably Welsh AM David Melding.

But this federalism should not be based upon an English Parliament to parallel Welsh, Scottish and (subject to the 1998 “Good Friday” settlement which permits unity with the Irish Republic should a referendum endorse that) Northern Ireland Parliaments.

For the 1973 Kilbrandon Royal Commission made a convincing case against a separate English Parliament which has never been rebutted.

Such a federation of four units would be “so unbalanced as to be unworkable. It would be dominated by the overwhelming political importance and wealth of England … [with] Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, together representing less than one fifth of the population.”

Instead, in a modern federal Britain, English interests could be protected through devolution beyond London to English regions or city-regions, and by reforms within the existing British Westminster Parliament.

These reforms would be designed to both preserve the equality of all MPs and to introduce special procedures ensuring the voices of English MPs could have weight over English-specific legislation.

The Westminster Parliament would have continuing responsibility for overall economic policy, taxation and spending totals, foreign and defence policy, security (including energy security) and social security.

The devolved legislatures could then take responsibility for most other policy areas, by mutual agreement.

But on taxation there is an important distinction between the Conservative endorsement of income tax devolution and a socialist perspective.

For the right it is an ideological objective to shrink the Whitehall state, offloading as much responsibility as possible onto individual citizens to fend for themselves, outsourcing to private providers and “subcontracting” tax and spending to devolved legislatures.

Having strenuously opposed political devolution in the past, the Tories now see the virtues of economic devolution in right wing terms.

And in that respect, at least, the outcomes if not the ideologies of nationalism and Conservatism converge, because it is the redistributive power of the British state that ensures that the former is extinguished and the latter stunted.

In Wales’ case, independence would leave us much the poorer, just like the North East of England or Cornwall would be if separatism or Tory tax devolution were to affect them.

All British taxpayers – English, Welsh, Scottish – contribute their taxes at a British level to guarantee free health care, pensions, a decent family income and universal education, as well as defence and security – and to guarantee that where relevant the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English regional or city-region governments have the capacity to deliver them.

Today, as policies diverge under devolution that may mean different things in different nations.

For example, there is free care for the elderly in Scotland but not in England.

In Wales student tuition fees are a third of those in England.

In Scotland and Wales collectivism is culturally more deeply rooted than in England, where Tory support is proportionately much greater.

Although socialists and Labour Party members right across Britain share common values of equality, social justice, democracy and liberty, these are increasingly expressed through different priorities and policies.

There is – at least as yet – no recognisably Welsh or Scottish socialism that might differ from an imagined English socialism.

But there is a direction of travel which will only be accommodated under a British socialism that is much more participatory, pluralist and devolutionary.

A Labour government, for example, should not be afraid to promote countervailing sources of power – for example, through an elected second chamber to replace the House of Lords and through devolution in England.

Some Labour traditionalists of both left and right have balked at such democratic pluralism because, as has been the case in Scotland and London, these bodies are not necessarily Labour controlled.

But that contradicts what ought to be a fundamental and defining characteristic of socialism, namely its essentially empowering ethos.

A truly democratic socialist state is an enabling one, though of course it needs to retain an enforcing role through upholding individual rights, asserting the common good on behalf of the community, and curbing excessive influence by the rich and powerful.’

No to English Parliament, yes to English devolution in a federal UK


Former Welsh secretary and Labour MP for Neath Peter Hain had this to say in a statement on the result:

The energy in the Scots votes, No and Yes, shows time is up for the old politics of the Westminster elite. People are fed up with a Westminster that does not listen and in the case of policies like the bedroom tax does not care.

All the Parties must now move quickly not only to deliver the promised new powers for Scotland, but to do so also for Wales, Northern Ireland and devolution to England. English regions like Cornwall and the North East, and city regions like Manchester and Leeds, also want more powers and should get these.

Peter added in a phone call with Prospect’s Josh Lowe: “If Scotland is going to get the same deal under the Barnett formula Wales has got to get a better deal [than it currently has]… You can’t keep giving all the goodies to Scotland simply because they shout the loudest.”

‘There is a strong case for the Committee Stage of English-only Bills to be scrutinised and amendments debated by English MPs only. But it would be fatal to balkanise Westminster by creating first and second class MPs for votes on the floor of the Commons. Otherwise only London MPs should decide on laws for London and so on, and crucially the Prime Minister would in practice be elected by English MPs alone since the PM would have to command a majority in the “England section’ of Westminster. The solution is devolution in England coupled with a federal UK Parliament in which English MPs would as they do now dominate, comprising 80 per cent of all MPs.”

The UK should move to a federal structure with nations, regions and communities empowered to build a new politics. This should include a democratic Second Parliamentary Chamber elected at the same time as general elections to replace the anachronistic House of Lords, representing all the nations and English regions.

Statement on the Scottish Referendum

I welcome this result but no one would be fooled by the idea that this is an endorsement of the status quo.

We have to accept that this is a strong mandate for greater federalism in the UK, for decades now the Celtic Nations have been calling for greater devolution and the English regions like Cornwall and the North are reigniting their desire for greater autonomy. I think Ed Miliband’s plans for greater city autonomy clearly shows Labour is the party to deliver on these ideals shared by much of the of British people.

And in Westminster we need to accept that decisiveness is urgent to finally address our constitutional issues including the House or Lords, which I have been calling for my entire parliamentary career.

People throughout the UK will not stand for inertia from Whitehall and the House of Commons any longer.

This referendum has woken up political engagement in the UK and that is something to be celebrated, it’s absolutely vital that we take heed of that but it’s what all of Britain, regardless of political creed wants.

There is a strong case for the Committee Stage of English-only Bills to be scrutinised and amendments debated by English MPs only.  But it would be fatal to balkanise Westminster by creating first and second class MPs for votes on the floor of the Commons.  Otherwise only London MPs should decide on laws for London and so on, and crucially the Prime Minister would in practice be elected by English MPs alone since the PM would have to command a majority in the ‘England section’ of Westminster.  The solution is devolution in England coupled with a federal UK Parliament in which English MPs would as they do now dominate, comprising 80 per cent of all MPs.

Alex Salmond, you’re no Nelson Mandela – Scotland is free already

Telegraph, 12 September 2014

For anyone like me who waged the long and bitter fight against apartheid, hearing Alex Salmond rank it alongside his campaign for Scottish independence defies belief. Apartheid was one of the worst racial tyrannies the world has ever seen – it suppressed, imprisoned, tortured or killed opponents, and it stripped blacks of any shred of dignity, denying their common humanity.

Scotland is part of a UK democracy where human rights are deeply entrenched. It has almost complete self-government – and has been promised still more. I quite understand why Salmond contrives to present his campaign as a battle against the perfidious English, he as the “Braveheart” liberating his people from London’s dastardly despotism. Doubtless one of his spin doctors will soon invoke him as a Nelson Mandela-like freedom warrior.

All that neatly diverts attention from both the paucity of the separatist case and its deeply flawed expectations. A separated Scotland will be weaker not stronger, a tiny isolated nation rather than part of a world power, poorer not richer, its currency in the lap of the gods, its status uncertain.

Maybe still in Nato, but no longer with a voice through the UK on the United Nations Security Council. Maybe admitted back into Europe, but probably not. Maybe still with the Queen as Head of State, but her Balmoral estate now in a foreign country – possibly no longer such a favoured destination.

Where Nelson Mandela was demanding his African people take their rightful place at the centre of power, Alex Salmond seeks to withdraw his people to the margins of it.

But when he commented that a long queue to register to vote in the referendum was “almost reminiscent of scenes in South Africa from 20 years ago when people queued up to vote in the first free election”, that wasn’t just fanciful and absurd, historically and politically – it was downright insulting.

I was a British parliamentary observer on that historic Wednesday morning, April 27, 1994, driven at dawn to Soweto, near Nelson Mandela’s old home, gold mine dumps looming in the early mist.

Arriving at our first polling station half an hour before it was due to open, there were already thousands queuing up, their mood calm and expectant. More were streaming in out of the morning haze as the sun rose.

My official driver happened to be a local resident, and was therefore invited to jump the queues and vote first. He waited anxiously to have his hand stamped. Then, as he put his ballot form in the box, he turned to catch my eye, smiling – part triumphant, part astonished – before leaving the polling station with a broad grin, punching the air in excitement.

Hardly able to accept that, in middle age, he had actually voted for the first time in his life, he told me he had been worried in case his ballot paper might be snatched away at the last minute.

An old woman – perhaps in her nineties – was led shuffling away after voting, a smile of eternity gracing her weathered face, as young men bounced confidently out in their trainers, giving high fives to friends.

After all those years, all the animosity, the ugly discrimination, the lives wasted away in prison, here it was happening, amazingly, right in front of me: constitutional apartheid being exorcised.

When Nelson Mandela cast his ballot later that day, also for the first time in his life, he characteristically joked when the waiting media posse asked him who he was voting for: “You know, I have been agonising over that choice all morning!”

It is sadly delusional to imply that next Thursday’s referendum will be any such magical Mandela moment.

Point Of Order – Referendum

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As both a former Leader of the House and a former Welsh Minister who led the referendum campaign in Wales in 1997, I can express some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s view. It seems to me paradoxical, to say the least, that Ministers, including the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, can make statements about the future of the United Kingdom outside the House, but cannot make such statements inside the House. As I understand it, the purdah applies to Government resources, and would prevent, for example, the sudden issue of a Government White Paper or a leaflet during the purdah period, but does not prevent the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions tomorrow, or the Deputy Prime Minister at any time, from making a statement to the House. I therefore strongly endorse your interpretation of the point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said, not least because, as he reminded the House, he has done so on the back of considerable experience of leading the House and, previously, of leadership responsibilities in Wales. My understanding is his understanding, and it is also the understanding of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). In any case, in so far as purdah is an applicable concept in this regard, it applies to what is said outside the House as well as what is said inside the House. There does seem to be a slightly paradoxical notion that it is okay to say something outside the House, but not okay to say it inside the House. The issue, it seems to me, is whether the basic convention is being adhered to or not: whether what is being said is a proper thing to be said. If it is a proper thing to be said, it is perfectly proper for it to be said in this House.