The All-Wales Convention is hardly something to get excited about, writes Bob Davies
Earlier this month, the Welsh assembly announced that it would be dropping car parking charges in all hospitals throughout Wales. The announcement caused a spat between officials in Westminster and those in Cardiff Bay, with one AM telling Ben Bradshaw, UK health minister, to “stay out of Welsh politics”. This country is “more than capable of running its own affairs,” said Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid Cymru, Llanelli).
In June 2007, 47% of people interviewed in a BBC Wales poll stated that they would support the assembly, or Senedd, having “full law-making powers”, as currently enjoyed by the Scottish parliament; 44% were opposed. Last month, however, the gap had increased to 49%-42%. Meanwhile, with the cross-party All-Wales Convention charged by the assembly with investigating the possibility of a referendum to sanction increased powers, constitutional issues continue to be given an almost daily hearing. All this provides communists and democrats with the opportunity to raise principled arguments around the question of genuine self-determination.
The All-Wales Convention is likely to open a can of worms. Indeed, although it is far from up and running at its full capacity, it has started to expose more clearly not only the tensions but the common ground between the two main players in Welsh politics, Labour and Plaid: Labour’s narrow monarchical unionism is countered by Plaid’s equally narrow monarchical nationalism.
There has already been disagreement over the timing of any referendum - something that has not been resolved by the recent appointment of Labour’s new Welsh secretary, Paul Murphy, known to be ‘cautious’ over devolution and previously described as a “dinosaur” on the question by deputy first minister and Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones. Currently, Labour is managing to get away with a ‘no rush’ position but whether or not it can sustain that depends on many factors - not least how confident Plaid feels about pushing its independence line (something that was relegated to the margins of its political programme during the elections last May) and, of course, grassroots feeling about the issue.
It goes without saying that the convention itself is hardly something communists should get excited about. The parameters within which its discussions will take place will be restricted by the limits that the Senedd (and the Westminster parliament) believes to be safe and manageable - in other words, by the interests of the UK constitutional monarchy. The fact that the assembly is legally obliged to seek assistance from various Whitehall departments to shape the policy on the devolution of any extra powers (however minor) says it all. Any debate on fundamental questions concerning the ability of Wales to fully decide its constitutional relationship with the rest of Britain will be downplayed. The question of a parliament with full powers, the right of self-determination up to and including secession, our demand for a federal republic in order to meet national aspirations and maximise workers’ unity across Britain - all will be bureaucratically sidelined.
Yet it would be tactically wrong to ignore the convention. There is already controversy over the suggestion that the number of AMs should be increased from 60 to 80 in order to manage an extra ‘workload’ generated by any increased assembly powers, as there has over the method of election. In our view the number of AMs is a secondary question compared to their accountability. That in turn raises the question of the salary of elected representatives. The pay of backbench AMs is soon to increase to over £50,000, but we say that as a measure of accountability they should receive only the equivalent of a skilled worker’s wage.
Communists must intervene as appropriate whenever and wherever possible in the convention meetings to be held throughout the country over the coming months (and years). So-called ‘citizens juries’, comprising “individuals from the community”, are to tour Wales to gauge support for the referendum. We must use such public forums as a platform in order to expose the limited democracy advocated by all the mainstream parties and counterpose the communist demand for extreme democracy.