Discover more from Peter Hain
Wales needs to find its place in a federal Britain in the wake of the Scottish Independence Referendum
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.’