Clear red water or Fabianism with a valleys accent? Wales and the politics of devolution

Issue: 141

Tim Evans

Seven years ago Britain’s main nationalist parties were making tangible gains. In 2007 the Scottish National Party (SNP), Sinn Fein and Plaid Cymru all took some degree of control in their respective devolved institutions. Sinn Fein entered into a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont, the SNP won control of the Scottish Parliament for the first time and Plaid Cymru went into a ruling coalition with Labour in the Welsh Senedd—the national assembly. Yet if you fast forward to 2014, only two of those parties have consolidated their gains. Plaid Cymru has failed to do so.

As James Maxwell of the New Statesman observed, the 2011 assembly elections were Plaid’s “worst result in the devolved era”.1 The party lost votes in both constituency and regional ballots, reducing its number of seats in the assembly from 15 to 11 out of a chamber of 60.2 This, combined with an unexpected Tory revival, pushed them into third place. The defeat triggered long-standing leader Ieuan Wyn Jones’s resignation, to be replaced by the more left wing Leanne Wood. Hardly was she in place when the local elections of 5 May 2012 saw Plaid lose 41 council seats, down to 158. Labour won ten out of the 21 councils contested, gaining 231 seats to make a total of 576.3 “The red tide returns” was the gloomy headline on a Plaid-supporting blog.4

Welsh popular opinion has always been tentative and ambivalent on the question of independence. The struggle for an independent Ireland achieved its breakthroughs in the first decades of the 20th century. In Scotland the question will be put to a referendum later this year. In Wales, however, the topic is barely on the agenda. The Commission on Devolution in Wales, usually referred to as the Silk Commission, has made 33 recommendations on further devolution, including introducing some tax-varying powers.5 The full report, delayed and now due out in spring 2014, will recommend an extension of policy areas under assembly control.

But, while extension of devolution may be popular, surveys consistently show less than 15 percent of Welsh people supporting a formal split, less than half the numbers supporting Scottish independence. A BBC Wales poll in March 2012 showed only 7 percent backing it, rising to 12 percent if Scotland left the United Kingdom.6 The reasons for these low levels of support are twofold: firstly, lack of economic confidence in a country which has suffered the decline of its principal industries without possessing a major resource like Scotland’s oil, and secondly, Welsh Labour’s success in differentiating itself from UK Labour and Blairism, thereby outflanking Plaid Cymru and the nationalists from the left.

One of the effects of the devolution process is to deflate any popular mood for independence. If it can be shown that powers are being devolved to a more local level without the potential economic risks of a complete split then, argues Welsh Labour, why go the whole hog? Sometimes the party that should be most pro-independence—Plaid Cymru—itself sounds defensive and hesitant about the issue, with Wood admitting Welsh independence “could not happen tomorrow” because the Welsh economy is too weak. It would “take a lot of work” to get to the stage where independence is an option, she said.7

The vote in the first (1979) referendum had been heavily against setting up a Welsh Assembly. However, the experience of the Thatcher governments in the 1980s persuaded some that such a layer could act as a buffer against the worst excesses of a central government whose ruling party had little support in much of urban South Wales. The second referendum, coming after the Tories were removed from government in 1997, was in favour, but by the narrowest of margins—0.6 percent. A further referendum in 2011 about extending Assembly lawmaking powers voted two to one in favour, but on a turnout of only 35.4 percent.8 While there is no great wave of popular enthusiasm for the Assembly, there seems to have developed a grudging sense that it is better to have it than not to have it. A 2012 BBC Wales poll found that while around a fifth—22 percent—of its sample of 1,000 thought it should be abolished,
29 percent were satisfied with the powers it has, and 36 percent said it should be more powerful. The poll also, interestingly, showed “strong support for the Welsh government’s public sector only approach to the NHS”.9

Clear Red Water?

There is a sense in which the Assembly is all things to all people. Even the Tories, who voted against setting it up, support it now. But putting it in place presented Welsh Labour with a challenge. How were they to stop Plaid Cymru, a party that should, on the face of things, be more at home with the politics of devolution, from reaping the electoral benefits? Indeed, in the first Assembly elections in 1999 it looked as if it would do just that, winning its highest share of the vote in any Wales-wide election, and taking iconic Labour seats like Islwyn, Llanelli and Rhondda.10 That the nationalist challenge faded was, argues Maxwell, largely due to Welsh Labour’s readiness to differentiate itself from the Labour Party in London at a time of growing popular discontent with Tony Blair and the New Labour project.11 He contrasts events in Scotland, where Scottish Labour’s revolt against Blairism was short-lived. When leader Henry McLeish was embroiled in an expenses scandal in 2001, his colleagues in the Labour group at Holyrood hung him out to dry—in part because he had recently defied Blair over the issue of free personal care. After his resignation, the post of first minister was handed to the more compliant Jack McConnell, enabling a resurgent SNP a few years later to capitalise on the popular perception that McConnell had not lived up to Scots’ aspirations for their new parliament.

Compare this with what happened in Wales. In 2000 Alun Michael, a Blair appointee, was deposed as first minister in favour of Rhodri Morgan, Welsh Labour grassroots’ preferred candidate. In 2002 Morgan delivered a speech in which he attacked Blair’s programme of public service modernisation and pledged to put “clear red water” between his administration and the London government.

Over ten years later and it is true that many of the “anti-reforms” that took root in England as part of the New Labour project have not occurred in Wales. There are no academies and no “free schools”. There are no SATs or league tables, although a similar system is being introduced. There are no foundation hospitals and the number of PFI schemes is much lower than elsewhere in the UK. There are no prescription charges, and better deals for tuition fees and residential care than in England. Students still receive Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA). “The perception”, says Maxwell, “that Welsh Labour was more than merely a satellite of British Labour chimed with an increasingly assertive sense of Welsh national identity, which in turn worked to limit the appeal of Plaid Cymru”.12

Welsh Labour would not have been able to carry this position on rhetoric alone—they were able to point to material benefits for people. However, in 2014, as austerity bites, the “clear red water” looks murky. According to Leanne Wood:

Wales’s clear red water version of Labour has turned out to be a sort of diluted Fabianism with a valleys accent. This would be fine if the problems that Wales faced weren’t quite so grave or so urgent.13

A string of reports critical of Welsh education have castigated teacher assessment of pupils,14 warning that unfavourable results in international rankings in 2015 could have economic ramifications for Wales as investment dries up for countries seen as having a sub-standard education system.15 The war of words between Michael Gove and Welsh education minister Leighton Andrews over A-levels and GCSEs, with Wales retaining them as England prepares to ditch them, ended in farce as Andrews resigned, accused of breaking the “ministerial code”. He had been campaigning against the closure of his local primary school, conveniently ignoring the fact that it was only threatened in the first place because of his own “surplus places” policy.16 Risible as this was, it bluntly illustrated the contradiction in making cuts while posing as a protector of Welsh communities.

NHS Wales, under serious financial pressure, is dressing up its programme of cuts and closures as advances in patient care. The South Wales Programme,17 supposedly a public consultation on the future of certain types of services, is actually a softening-up exercise designed to rationalise and push through cuts. It is particularly invidious as it sets people in one locality against another, encouraging them to vote for options that retain services at their local hospital but close them in another. For example, proposals are going forward for the cutting of services from one of Llantrisant, Bridgend or Merthyr Tydfil hospitals. Protesters at the Assembly were made to urge a vote that would retain services at their hospital but cut them from another.18 Meanwhile the Health Boards insist that centralising services in a few new Welsh “super-hospitals” will lead to improvements—a
claim that nobody believes.19

Responsibility for managing NHS budget cuts is now fully “devolved” by the Assembly to the Local Health Boards (LHBs). Previously the Early Voluntary Release (EVR) scheme, a sort of “redundancy-lite”, was paid for by the Assembly. Now, however, the Cardiff and Vale Health Board has served unions with a Section 188 notice under the Trade Union Relations Act informing them of over 400 redundancies to be made in order to “save” £35 million.20 These are symptoms of a crisis affecting the whole Welsh NHS. Health minister Mark Drakeford, the AM for Cardiff West, claims NHS Wales broke even in 2012-13, which brought accusations of “fantasy accounting”, since the Assembly had used an £82 million contingency fund in December 2012 to support the Health Boards.21 Meanwhile, a report to Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board estimated it needs to “save” the equivalent of almost £1 million a week to break even for 2013-14.22

The Department for Work and Pensions, responsible for benefit cuts, including the hated bedroom tax, is non-devolved. Consequently Labour and Plaid AMs and councillors are loud in condemnation of Tory attacks on welfare spending, but apparently unable to do anything more than faithfully implement the cuts. When Swansea Council leader, Labour’s David Phillips, was confronted by protesters outside a council meeting in April 2013 he was strong on anti bedroom tax rhetoric, attacking the Tories and the bankers and calling austerity “repugnant”. Yet he refused to pledge the council to a policy of no evictions, promising only to take “all legal and financially viable measures to protect the people of Swansea from the worst of the impact of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat benefit cuts”.23 Labour-controlled Swansea is also imposing the Single Status pay structure unilaterally upon its workers, including 4,300 Unison members who have rejected a deal which will mean pay cuts for many.24 In addition, £45 million of cuts to services and jobs are set to be imposed over the next three years, with Swansea council workers told that hundreds of jobs will go.

Will Plaid be able to win over disillusioned Welsh Labour supporters as Labour councils implement austerity measures? Well, Plaid is also capable of double standards. Its candidate in the Ynys Mon/Anglesey by-election to the Assembly came out strongly in favour of the proposed Wylfa B nuclear reactor on Anglesey, despite Plaid’s official position of opposition to nuclear power.25 Although Plaid councillors use anti-cuts rhetoric, and Bethan Jenkins AM spoke powerfully against the bedroom tax at a recent rally in Swansea, they have voted for reduced budgets. Plaid’s record in councils like Rhondda Cynon Taff in Mid Glamorgan was one of failure to fight cuts to jobs and services imposed by Westminster. Yet as austerity grinds on, cuts-imposing Labour councils leave themselves vulnerable. If the material benefits secured ten years ago disappear, space might open up not only for Plaid but for a properly built left alliance.

National identity and language

Before I look more closely at Plaid’s history, I want to consider the idea of a distinctive Welsh culture and language. One of Welsh nationalism’s basic precepts is that the Welsh suffer from national oppression inflicted by their more powerful eastern neighbour. Charlie Kimber points out in the 1999 pamphlet Wales: Class Struggle and Socialism that: “Welsh bosses, Welsh politicians and Welsh bureaucrats are central to the way that Wales is run. The very real poverty, inequality and alienation that do exist in Wales are the result of class divisions, not national divisions”.26 Unlike in Ireland, British troops were not put on the streets in Welsh towns in the 20th century to suppress insurgent nationalists. Where troops were used in Wales—for instance in the Rhondda in 1910 or Llanelli in 1911, or earlier, in Merthyr in 1831 or Newport in 1839, or during the Rebecca Riots of the same period—it was against workers or Chartists, during uprisings by a combative working class or by impoverished small farmers and agricultural workers. Class struggle, not emerging national identity, was the driving force in these revolts.

Although many of the 19th century industrialists were English, there were Welsh ones too. However, Welsh nationalist narrative emphasises the Englishness of the ironmasters and coal owners and of the English (and Scottish) soldiers who were sent to suppress the uprisings. The rebellions were met not only with physical repression but with cultural and ideological attacks by the authorities which sometimes took an ethnic dimension. The government was shaken by the uprisings and in their wake set up a royal commission to enquire into the state of education in Wales. In 1847 it reported its findings to the government. As the report consisted of a series of blue books, this became known in Wales as “Y Brad Y Llifrau Gleision”—the treachery of the blue books. The commissioners (all English men) characterised the Welsh, especially the women, as unruly and immoral and blamed the chapel and the Welsh language for this state of affairs. With industrialisation had come the necessity for the British state to standardise not only behaviour but also language.

The development of industrial capitalism at this time required both state education and government bureaucracy, and the linguistic medium for both of these was English. Control of communication is also vital for law enforcement, and the communities that erupted during the Rebecca Riots of the late 1830s and early 1840s were notoriously difficult for the authorities to infiltrate because police spies could not understand Welsh.

Government payments to the increasing number of elementary schools that were set up after the Education Act of 1870 could be partially withheld if inspectors were not satisfied that pupils were making progress in the reading and writing of English. These targets did not apply to Welsh, and with no financial incentive to teach it, Welsh disappeared from the curriculum of teacher training colleges. It was this that drove the decline in its use, rather than active persecution of Welsh-speaking pupils. The use of the “Welsh Not” or “Welsh Note”—a demeaning tally-stick hung round the neck of children found speaking Welsh—was probably not as widespread as has been claimed by some 20th century commentators. The 1847 royal commission noted the practice and was highly critical of it.

The issue of the language remains central to Welsh politics and culture, and retains its capacity to polarise. Despite attempts made by the authorities in the 19th and early 20th century to marginalise the language, the Welsh are not today a nationally oppressed minority—indeed, the very notion of a “Welsh national identity” is problematic. Such an “identity” would, for example, need to include the Somalis who settled in Cardiff in the late 19th century as well as the descendants of the Spanish workers who came to work in the mines from 1900 onwards. Indeed, Gwyn A Williams argues that it is only massive immigration to the industrial areas at the beginning of the 20th century which enabled the Welsh as a distinctive ethnic group to survive.27

Some of what was seen as “Welsh culture” developed out of the “invention of tradition” which Eric Hobsbawm and others identified in many countries as nation-states sought to create a unified sense of national identity:

What began [in Wales] in the middle decades of the [18th] century as a scholarly and methodical attempt to recover past tradition, increasingly became tinged with…fantasy and…forgery, and culminated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the deliberate invention of tradition.28

The most notorious of the forgers was the antiquarian Edward Williams (1747-1826) better known by his bardic name of “Iolo Morgannwg”, who claimed to be the last surviving member of the ancient order of druidic bards. Many of the “ancient” documents he “discovered” in support of his writings about Welsh history were actually forged by him in the late 18th century.29

In cultural terms, however, the Welsh language survives, not just as a mode of communication but as a symbol of national identity. The Welsh Language Acts of 1967 and 1993 gave it equal status with English in government business and the public sector, and there are many modern Welsh medium primary and secondary schools. Road signs are bilingual, and the Welsh language TV channel, Sianel Pedwar Cymru (S4C), began broadcasting in 1982. The political party most strongly identified with Welsh language and culture is the nationalist Plaid Cymru, which also favours a political model of what it calls “decentralist socialism”.30

A Socialist Plaid?

So does Plaid represent a real socialist alternative? Hardly. Charlie Kimber’s assessment is true today (even if the “Tiger” economies he refers to have been discredited):

(Plaid) believes in building up Welsh capitalism, not taking power away from the capitalists altogether. Its model is the Irish “Celtic Tiger” economy…if it ever gets close to any sort of power then, just like the Scottish National Party, it will intensify its campaign to woo business and show that it is market friendly…there is no way forward through nationalist politics”.31

Indeed, prior to 2007, when Labour and Plaid went into coalition in the Assembly, a significant section of Plaid was considering a coalition with the Tories.

Having said this, many activists and socialists who want to see real change and are disgusted by Labour’s warmongering and capitulation to neoliberalism see Plaid as a radical alternative. The party’s anti-imperialist, anti-militarist stance means it is against nuclear weapons and opposed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Adam Price, ex-MP for Carmarthen East, began impeachment proceedings against Blair in 2004 and spoke on Stop the War platforms.32 The election of Leanne Wood is an attempt to continue the process of breaking out of Plaid’s rural redoubts and connecting with socialists and workers disenchanted with Labour.33 Wood’s election campaign included a big programme of public meetings as well as the use of social media to reach young people. During the campaign Plaid’s membership grew by 23 percent. George Monbiot calls Wood “the Caroline Lucas of Wales”.34 She describes herself as a socialist, republican and feminist.

Chair of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) trade union group in the Assembly, she was also chair of Cardiff Stop the War Coalition in 2003-4, and in 2007 was arrested during an anti-Trident protest at Faslane. A Welsh language “learner” who was born in the Rhondda (unlike her predecessor who was Welsh Assembly member for Anglesey in the far north and spoke Welsh since childhood), she represents a serious attempt by Plaid to connect with a wider, more left-leaning, urban and cosmopolitan, even anglicised, base. As an SWP member told me:

Leanne…supported Stop the War Coalition and spoke at our meetings…she has worked and is willing to work outside conventional politics, which may explain some of the vitriol from Labour people who never venture outside their bubbles.35

As Welsh Labour councils push cuts through, a radical, campaigning Plaid could attract support from trade unionists and the young, disabled and others whose jobs and services are being axed.

But not everybody in Plaid shares Wood’s vision of Wales as a “socialist republic”. In 2004 the Plaid peer Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas ordered her to leave the Assembly for referring to the queen as “Mrs Windsor”. He stood against her in the 2012 leadership election, and later had the whip withdrawn himself by Wood after failing to turn up for an important vote in the Assembly. Indeed, several issues recently have exposed inconsistencies in Plaid’s position, reflecting its cross-class nationalism and its need to appeal to different constituencies. As has already been mentioned, despite Plaid’s position of opposition to nuclear power, and Wood’s own anti-nuclear views, the Ynys Mon/Anglesey election was won by a Plaid candidate who supported the Wylfa B reactor on the grounds that it would bring jobs to the island. This was followed by Elis-Thomas calling for more nuclear power stations.36

Wind farms are another issue where renewable energy and climate change, concerns of the environmentally conscious progressives Wood hopes to bring on side, collide with the anti wind farm stance of the farmers and landowners Plaid also relies on. Labour’s Commons debate on a mansion tax on properties worth more than £2 million saw Plaid MPs split over the issue of whether farmers would be exempt. This led to much gloating from Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith, who spoke of Plaid’s backing of “multi-millionaire landowners”.37 As the party tries to respond to the economic crisis, Plaid’s leftish urban face may be at odds with its rural conservative one. Its powerful traditionalist bloc may well resist attempts to turn it into a radical, campaigning, “socialist” party. To appreciate these tensions it is necessary to look briefly at Plaid’s roots and its development in the 20th century.

Origins of Plaid

Plaid Cymru’s origins are in truth far removed from the leftish politics of Leanne Wood. Formed as Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru (the Welsh National Party) in 1925 initially to promote Welsh culture, and to make the Welsh language the only official language of Wales, its founders were right wing conservatives, some of whom have been accused of fascist sympathies.38 Its two leading figures in the 1930s were Ambrose Bebb and Saunders Lewis, two young academics. Bebb was influenced by the far-right Action Française, and said: “It is a Mussolini that Wales needs… And coming he is”.39 However, he became a supporter of war against Nazi Germany, unlike some other Plaid members. Saunders Lewis was a complex, tortured individual, a poet and dramatist, described by Gwyn A Williams as “deeply conservative, a monarchist, a believer in leadership by a responsible elite”. Under him, Plaid called for “a nation of ‘small capitalists’, cooperation, the deindustrialisation of South Wales and the restoration of agriculture as the basic industry”.40 Lewis also called for the annihilation of English as a national language: “It must be deleted from the land called Wales”.41 He served as president of Plaid for 13 years and became its public face.

In 1936, together with two others—the Rev Lewis Valentine and
D J Williams, a local schoolteacher—Lewis set fire to the newly constructed RAF air base (or “bombing school”) at Penyberth on the Llyn peninsula, in protest against its siting in the Welsh heartland. The three then handed themselves in to the police and were each finally sentenced to nine months imprisonment.42 The trial was moved from Caernarvon to the Old Bailey, where the judge scornfully dismissed the use of Welsh, and the men were made to serve their sentences in Wormwood Scrubs rather than a Welsh prison. The case became a cause celebre—Plaid Cymru’s profile was heightened and its membership doubled to nearly 2,000 by 1939.

During the Second World War the party moved rightwards, and its toleration of anti-Semitism and refusal to oppose Hitler, Mussolini or Franco alienated many who believed they had joined a liberal, even left wing, nationalist party. But in 1945 the liberal pacifist Gwynfor Evans was elected as party president. Over the next 15 years the party moved from being a right wing nationalist movement to being a party in favour of trade unions and social reform.43 Nationalist sentiment was heightened in the late 1950s and 1960s with the case of the Tryweryn Valley, where, despite nationwide Welsh protests, the village of Capel Celyn was flooded to build a reservoir for Liverpool.44 Plaid’s share of the vote went up from 0.7 percent in 1951 to 3.1 percent in 1955 and 5.2 percent in 1959.

Plaid and the language campaign in the 1960s

In the early 1960s support for the party declined slightly, but in 1962 Saunders Lewis delivered a radio lecture entitled Tynged yr Iaith (the fate of the language) which raised fears for the language’s survival and called on all Welsh people to make it their first priority. This led to the formation of the campaign group Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) the same year. The global wave of youth revolts from the mid-1960s onwards impacted on Wales, and the language movement went through an important shift, ceasing to be just a conservative concern and beginning to draw in many students and young people. The action focused on campaigning for the use of Welsh in official documents, in the media and on road signs. Many members of Cymdeithas were involved in a high-visibility campaign of direct action in 1969, in which English road signs were vandalised and painted out.45 This period saw numerous hunger strikes, prison sentences and occupations of TV studios. The campaign against the Investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon, also in 1969, saw a separate bombing campaign, in which two young men died after bombs went off prematurely.46

Plaid benefited not only from a popular identification with national identity, but also from widespread disenchantment with Harold Wilson’s Labour government, elected in 1964 and confirmed with a larger majority in 1966. Labour presided over rising unemployment and pit closures, and its economic policies meant attacks on workers. At the Carmarthen by-election of 1966 Plaid’s president, Gwynfor Evans, was elected as the first Welsh nationalist MP, beating the strongly nationalist Labour candidate. At the next by-elections in Rhondda West in 1967 and Caerphilly in 1968 the swing to Plaid was 30 percent and 40 percent respectively, bringing them close to victory.47 These were not Welsh-speaking areas (both are in the South Wales valleys). What brought Plaid votes was the fact that it had a slightly more left wing programme at a time when Labour in office was battering workers.

Devolution and Thatcher

At the 1970 election Plaid contested every seat in Wales for the first time. Its share of the vote increased from 4.5 percent in 1966 to 11.5 percent. However, it won no seats and Gwynfor Evans lost Carmarthen to Labour. With the Tories back in power and a big revival in class struggle, with trade unionists leading the charge, Plaid saw its support fall in the industrial heartlands of South Wales. It won two MPs in the February 1974 election which removed Ted Heath, but both were in traditional Welsh speaking areas. Nevertheless, Labour, fearful of a nationalist tide in Scotland more than Wales, short of an overall majority and dependent on the support of minor parties, pushed through a few bureaucratic nationalist concessions to add to the creation of the Welsh Office in 1964, and went into the October 1974 election pledged to implement devolution in Scotland and Wales.

The Welsh referendum on setting up an elected Welsh Assembly was held on 1 March 1979. Officially Labour, the Liberals, Wales TUC and Plaid Cymru all supported a “Yes”: vote: only the Tories and the bosses’ Confederation of British Industry (CBI) were unambiguously for a “No”. Nonetheless, the result was only 243,000 for an assembly with 956,000 against. Although the “No” camp had whipped up fears of domination by a “Welsh-speaking elite”, more important was the deep disillusionment that had set in with Labour and its policies. Its attacks on workers, together with the failure of the trade unions to resist them, had created a bitter, alienated, apolitical mood. The referendum result was an ominous forerunner of the Tories’ win in the general election two months later.48

Under the Thatcher governments Plaid moved left, adopting the aim of a “decentralised socialist state” at its 1981 conference—a position it retains.49 After their victory in the referendum vote the Tories believed they could afford in 1980 to announce a refusal to honour their election pledge to introduce a Welsh-language television channel. Plaid threatened a campaign of direct action, with 2,000 members pledging to go to jail rather than pay their TV licence, and president Gwynfor Evans announcing a “fast until death” if the policy was not implemented.50 This took place against the backdrop of an (unrelated) arson campaign by the shadowy nationalist group Meibion Glyndwr (Sons of Glyndwr) targeting English second homes in Wales, and mass unofficial walkouts by miners resisting pit closures. The government backed down, both on the TV channel and, temporarily, the pit closures.

The 1980s were a well-documented disaster for South Wales, with steel and mining decimated and communities destroyed, with consequences that are still with us. The power of the National Union of Mineworkers, a political as well as industrial force in South Wales, was broken. The experience of the Thatcher government generated the feeling that the Welsh were being attacked by remote Westminster politicians who had no understanding of people’s lives down here, led by a Tory party which had little support in Wales. This created a mood in which a separate Welsh Assembly began to appear a more attractive prospect.

This could not become a realistic possibility until the Tories were out of government, which occurred with the 1997 general election. A second referendum on setting up a Welsh Assembly was held on 18 September 1997, with 559,419 (50.3 percent) voting for, and 552,698 (49.7 percent) against, a majority in favour of just 0.6 percent, on a 50.1 percent turnout.51 A further referendum took place in 2011 to extend Assembly lawmaking powers, which voted 63.5 percent in favour against 36.5 percent against, but on an even lower turnout of 35.4 percent. This lack of popular enthusiasm perhaps demonstrates people’s implicit grasp of Neil Davidson’s point:

The more politics is emptied of content, the more social neoliberal regimes need to prove that democracy is still meaningful—not, of course, by extending the areas of social life under democratic control, but by multiplying the opportunities for citizen-consumers to take part in elections for local councillors, mayors, members of the Welsh and London Assemblies, and the Scottish, British and European parliaments.52

Nationalism—or internationalism?

As a competitor for its electoral base in the south, Welsh Labour misses no opportunity to disparage Plaid’s alleged “extremism”. In September 2012 it called on Leanne Wood to condemn Plaid president Jill Evans MEP, for speaking at a rally where the flag of the minuscule paramilitary organisation the Free Wales Army was displayed, saying the party should come clean with the electorate about links with “extreme right wing nationalists”.53

Notions of right and left have a certain resonance. Labour has always been ambivalent about Welsh independence. Most Welsh MPs who opposed it in the 1970s were so signed up to the idea of a “United Kingdom” and the unity of the British state that they could not conceive of its break-up, although some on the left, including the then left winger Neil Kinnock, couched it in the rhetoric of socialist internationalism. This, of course, echoed the language of many socialists and communists in the 20th century who saw Welsh nationalism as politically reactionary and culturally backward—a movement of the right. But many Labour MPs wanted their careers to be firmly positioned on a British stage, not a parochial Welsh one. Peter Hain MP, as Welsh Secretary, tried in 2009 to block a referendum for greater Assembly lawmaking powers. Nowadays he favours more devolution, including devolving power to English regions, the failure to do which, he says, is a “festering sore”, but he is opposed to both Welsh and Scottish independence.54

The enforcement of austerity in Europe by the Troika—the European Commision (EC), European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF)—accelerates the development of separatism in parts of Europe, often the wealthier regions. Many Catalonian separatists believe they could do better economically as a state independent from Spain. The same is true of Flanders—seeking separation from Wallonia in Belgium. In Germany the wealthy federal states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg in the south argue against subsidising the rest of the country. In Italy the Northern League presses for federalism and autonomy for the north. This latter case illustrates graphically how separatist movements can come from the extreme right. The Northern League might be keen to publicly disassociate itself from fascism, but it worked to get an open fascist elected as mayor of Rome.55 Italy’s first black minister Cecile Kyenge faced a daily torrent of Northern League coordinated abuse from her first day in the job, including being called an “orangutan” by a Northern League senator and having bananas thrown at her. Separatist movements in Europe can shade over into the extreme right, with calls for regional autonomy combining with anti-immigrant racism and attacks on Roma, Muslims and asylum seekers.

The state and the global market

Why, in an era of global capital outreach, where the market penetrates into all societies and states are merely there to organise the affairs of big corporations, should technical matters of national boundaries matter to capitalism? Firstly, it must be stressed that internationalisation of finance, markets and production has not diminished the importance, for multinationals, of being based in a particular nation-state. The actions of national states still impact profoundly on the profitability of companies operating from their territories.56 They control taxation and government expenditure, influence the amount of investment available and rates of interest, are responsible for company and labour laws and negotiate trade agreements that can open up markets in other countries. They make sure that other states enforce “intellectual copyright” laws on new inventions and discoveries—especially important for pharmaceuticals, agroindustry and software—and can also intervene to protect firms from going bust. As Chris Harman pointed out in 2003:

The world’s biggest companies have both expanded beyond national boundaries on a scale that now exceeds the internationalisation of the system before the First World War and remain dependent to a high degree on their ability to influence “their” national government. This is because, at the end of the day, they need a state to protect their web of international interests, and the only states that exist are national states.57

When push comes to shove, a state exercises a monopoly of armed force which can be used not only against other states, but against domestic movements like trade unions that can threaten market relations. Writing in support of globalisation, the US journalist Thomas L Friedman said:

The hidden hand of the market can never work without a hidden
fist—McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.58

Secondly, the economic crisis that began in 2007-8 onwards has starkly exposed the continued importance of nation-states. It may have been at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank, but it was national governments that bailed out the banks, nationalised some of them and are now in the process of restructuring national economies in their interests. It is national governments that have sacked public sector workers, changed their pension arrangements and frozen their pay. The banking institutions, whatever their global reach, depended utterly upon the ability of the governments of individual nation-states to rescue them by imposing a new settlement upon the citizens of their countries.

As supranational bodies such as the IMF and the ECB use their authority and capital to enforce “fiscal discipline” on member states, secessionary movements can gain support, as in Catalonia and Flanders, but pressure from the workers’ movement and the unions can also have an impact. In places where the crisis is severe, as in Greece, a fight is being waged between the Troika on the one hand, and workers, students and poor on the other, with the Greek state attempting to enforce the Troika’s decisions but vulnerable to pressure from below. The international money markets are dependent on the Greek state’s monopoly of armed force (and its supply of tear gas) on the streets of Athens every day.

The imposition of austerity feeds secessionary movements, and the governments of vulnerable nations within the bosses’ club known as the European Union (EU) in turn use their influence to discourage this. Some EU countries—including Spain, Cyprus and Slovakia—still refuse to recognise Kosovo’s secession from Serbia for fear of setting a precedent for their own independence movements.59

Many Scottish voters support the EU, but a breakaway region would not automatically gain EU membership: confusion around this issue might well depress the vote in favour of Scottish independence. Paradoxically, threats of a UK exit from the EU might boost it. On mainland Britain the “independence” party that has received most publicity is the right populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) which has built itself in opposition to the EU. There is no doubt that the eurozone crisis has driven the growth of anti-EU sentiment, with David Cameron now committed to a 2017 referendum on membership. However, Scottish public opinion is more supportive of the EU than in England. A rising anti-EU tide south of the border might persuade Scots that the best way for them to avoid the risk of being thrown out of the EU would be to vote for independence from the UK before England votes on Europe. The SNP is already arguing that leaving the UK is the only way for Scotland to guarantee it stays in the EU.

English Devolution?

Arguments for English devolution have been rumbling on for years, however, often coming from Labour. In 2001, under Blair’s premiership, then chancellor Gordon Brown and John Prescott, Labour deputy leader, headed up calls by backbenchers and ministers for a network of eight English regional assemblies, comprising councillors and business interests, and an English regional committee in the House of Commons. In Brown’s portentous vision:

We are moving from the old Britain of subjects where people had to look upwards to a Whitehall bureaucracy for their solutions, to a Britain of citizens where, region to region…we are ourselves in charge.60

Anthony Giddens, advocate of “Third Way” politics (an attempt to marry neoliberal economics with social democracy adopted by Blair) regards devolution as “a prime third way initiative…a policy that is both pragmatic and principled”.61 Although he thinks Scottish independence would bring no benefits, he supports devolution not only in Wales and Scotland but in England. He believes making “a cosmopolitan nation” out of the current UK depends not only upon devolving to the constituent nations but also on giving more autonomy to English regions. As noted above, Peter Hain MP is in favour of English regional devolution, and senior Labour MP Graham Allen has called for a referendum on handing tax-raising powers to local authorities.62 Paul Murphy, Labour MP for Torfaen and former Welsh and Northern Ireland Secretary, argued that devolution for English regions could be used to “protect people’s interests” across the UK.63

In a sense Alex Salmond’s unsuccessful attempt to get the “devo max” option on the referendum was an attempt to square the circle, to press the devolution bandwagon into the service of independence. Support for devolution of powers and budgets comes from all points on the political compass. Menzies Campbell and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have published a report arguing for, in the event of a “No” vote for independence, the introduction of a form of “home rule”. In this Scotland would raise two thirds of its taxes as part of a raft of constitutional changes that would replace the Act of Union of 1707 with a new “declaration of federal union” for all parts of the UK.64 Tories such as Tim Montgomerie argue that Cameron should reconstruct the British constitution on a federal basis.65 Even ageing Tory class warrior Michael Heseltine’s report on growth, “No Stone Unturned”, calls for devolution of budgets—moving £49 billion from central government to the big cities in the English regions66—an idea supported by George Osborne.67

Devolution is acceptable to the Tories as it places responsibility for cutting expenditure on the regional government, while retaining limitations on that government’s freedom to manoeuvre. Furthermore, as Neil Davidson argues, devolution is a sleight of hand. It can be useful to capital as a way of further implanting social neoliberalism, a “strategy of delegation” in which:

Responsibility for implementing anti-reforms is spread beyond governing parties and central state apparatuses to elected bodies whose policy options are severely restricted both by statute and—as in the case of local councils—reliance on the treasury for most of their funding.68

The construction of an apparently enhanced democracy on a decentralised model, which actually conceals a heightened centralisation, especially of control of funding, has been a common strategy in the restructuring of the UK public sector. It was behind the reorganisation of, for example, secondary education in the 1980s and 1990s. Individual schools are now theoretically all-powerful (“free”), while classroom teachers actually have less and less autonomy, increasingly controlled by a horrible combination of central government “guidelines”, testing, assessment and market forces.

One can see the attraction of the devolutionary magic bullet to some sections of the ruling class. Devolution has the advantages for a national state of seeming to be more democratic, more distributive, while retaining, when push comes to shove, the powers that matter. The devolved powers of a sub-national authority can be temporary. Legislation creating devolved parliaments and assemblies can be changed or indeed repealed by the same central government that initiated them. It is part of a process of seeming decentralisation of state powers, in tune with anti-state ideology and rhetoric which became hegemonic after the collapse of the East European regimes from 1989 onwards. As power is distributed further from the centre it becomes disseminated, depoliticised until it is invisible to Davidson’s “citizen-consumer”. Interestingly, this anti-state, anti-centralist rhetoric is always accompanied by increases in centralised state security and surveillance, by more repressive laws and more punitive sentences, under the guise of “anti-terrorism”.

Although the notion of an independent England is confined to the far-right fringe politics of groups like the English Independence Party, one of the effects of an independent Scotland, it has been argued, might be to stimulate English nationalism. A Mori opinion poll in 2006 commissioned by the Campaign for an English Parliament found that support for an English Parliament with the same powers as the existing Scottish Parliament had risen to 41 percent.69 Giddens fears that: “without devolution in England…other political forces could fill the vacuum—the Little Englanders could move in”.70 The right could attempt to exploit the mood, especially against the backdrop of anti-immigrant mood music from the main parties. Concerns about the rise of a “narrow and inward-looking” English nationalism were raised at a conference of the prestigious Ditchley Foundation, which also observed that:

The psychological impact on the outside world of the UK “losing” part of herself might be disproportionate, reinforcing a perception of decline. This perception could have a significant effect on [the rest of the UK’s] prestige, influence and soft power in the world.71

National independence and class

We should have no illusions that an independent Wales or Scotland would somehow automatically be a more “socialist” entity. As Lenin pointed out in 1916:

Finance capital, in its striving towards expansion, will “freely” buy and bribe the freest, most democratic and republican government and the elected officials of any country, however “independent” it may be. The domination of finance capital, as of capital in general, cannot be abolished by any kind of reforms in the realm of political democracy, and self-determination belongs wholly and exclusively to this realm.72

An autonomous Wales would determine its political complexion through the process of struggle, not through the specific political settlement upon which national boundaries were agreed.

Some socialists and trade unionists fear that “independence could break up British trade unionism…our collective would be reduced and our influence diminished further”.73 Acknowledging that the market will attempt to benefit from any political settlement available does not mean that we should accept the argument that the British state should be held together in order to continue the binding together of the formal structures of the trade unions. This is to take the reality of national boundaries too literally. Certainly, as Davidson argues, if secession occurs, great care must be taken to discourage divisions between workers in different national groups. Common union membership can exist across national boundaries, as seen between Ireland and Britain, or Canada and the US. Any attempt to set up Scottish breakaway trade unions should be strongly resisted, as it: “would fragment working class organisations in the face of capitalists who operate on both sides of the border… Class unity is about solidarity, which recognises no borders”.74 Solidarity is not automatic—it always has to be fought for. It is our most powerful weapon, which is why solidarity action is illegal in Britain today. There is a real fight to be had here, and it is not to do with secession, but rather with the curtailing of solidarity in the here and now. Rather than using fears of fragmentation as an argument against Scottish or Welsh independence, we urgently need to rebuild traditions of united action across all borders in our battle against austerity. It is not bourgeois legality and notions of nationhood that are at stake, but rather the ability of rank and file workers to organise and take effective action. The Occupy movement lacked strategy and was ultimately unable to sustain itself but at least it showed how rapidly an imaginative movement whose slogans resonated and which could use social media effectively could spread across national boundaries.

The trade union bureaucracy is the creature of sectionalism. Its job is to manage discontent and keep it within a reformist political context. The trade union structures mirror the divisions imposed on workers by capitalism, including national divisions, the notion of national identity being crucial for the ruling class. As Davidson argues:

One might say that workers remain nationalist to the extent that they remain reformist. And from the point of view of the capitalist class in individual nations it is absolutely necessary that they do so, or the danger is always that workers will identify, not with the “national” interest of the state in which they happen to be situated, but with that of the class to which they are condemned to belong, regardless of the accident of geographical location.75

The narrow mindset of national identity, however, can be overcome. In an era of globalised capitalism international solidarity is not just rhetoric but an essential weapon for workers. If employers are multinational so, increasingly, are their workforces, making an international perspective ever more important. On 14 November 2012 millions of workers in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece took part in the biggest ever coordinated European strike action, in protest at austerity, with rallies and demonstrations in many other countries. More international action is necessary, not simply because by sheer strength of numbers it helps build the morale of those involved but also because it breaks down national divisions and helps undercut the scapegoating of “foreigners” and immigrants.

The divisions of regionalism have long been a problem for workers, and are not specially related to devolution or independence—they can disarm the workers’ movement within the confines of national boundaries. At a critical point during the 1984-5 miners’ strike the NUM leaderships of Scotland and Wales called off picketing, allowing coal into the Ravenscraig and Port Talbot steelworks, supposedly in the interests of their respective areas.76 The capitalist class routinely sets worker against worker, but this is only overcome by the self-organisation of workers, not through adherence to the specific forms of a national settlement that has been constructed to serve the interests of capital. Our aim is internationalism, but only through the right to self-determination can this be achieved. In Lenin’s words:

Just as mankind can achieve the abolition of classes only by passing through the transition period of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, so mankind can achieve the inevitable merging of nations only by passing through the transition period of complete liberation of all the oppressed nations, ie their freedom to secede.77

As we have seen, the question of economic viability is central to any notion of Welsh independence. While Scotland and now apparently Ireland have oil, Wales, like many parts of England, has never recovered from the destruction of traditional industries. This devastation had contradictory effects: on the one hand it persuaded many that Wales needed protective distancing from Westminster; on the other hand, it reduced confidence in Wales’s ability to operate as a viable independent economic unit. If you discount tourism and the many risible “regeneration projects”, both Westminster and Assembly economic strategies for Wales have tended towards inward investment: encouraging multinationals to come and take advantage of a skilled, flexible workforce. All too often this has meant firms opening, picking up as much funding, freebies and sweeteners as they can, paying as little tax as possible or, like Amazon in Swansea, no corporation tax on its profits at all,78 and then at some point heading off to where labour costs are even lower.

The economic viability question has been batted back and forth, with ex Plaid MP Adam Price arguing that growth in Wales has been so pitiful over the past 20 years that, had it been a small independent country during that time, it might have done much better.79 Welsh nervousness about independence is conditional upon the specific shape that austerity takes. With Wales already valued at only 74 percent of the UK per capita average,80 a cutting of public sector wages of 18 percent through regional pay, plus year on year budget and benefit cuts,81 may well combine with rising unemployment to create a situation where independence might seem a better option than experiencing a shrinkage of the economy to East European levels. Indeed, there are many who question whether the UK itself is a viable economic entity. Its dependence on massive levels of debt and a top-heavy financial sector, and its inability to respond to the current crisis except by the stimulation of a further housing bubble, would suggest otherwise.

Some conclusions

If workers are nationalist to the extent that they remain reformist, in a deepening economic crisis nationalism is the other face of reformism. Where traditional social democracy fails, secession and political and economic independence are often seen as an alternative. Welsh Labour has encouraged workers to believe a devolved Assembly is protecting them from the ravages of Cameron and Osborne. If socialism in one country is impossible, socialism in a smaller region of that country is doubly so. “Clear red water” is an illusion—as is being discovered as the cuts begin to take effect. Welsh Labour is not a fundamentally different animal from English Labour, and will do the bidding of the markets and the IMF. It is through their own power to resist that workers will be able to defend themselves, not through placing their trust in a regional government that declares itself to have socialist values, or talks about a “Welsh way” (surely a reincarnation of The Third Way so beloved of Blair). To resist the attacks successfully, Welsh workers will have to unite with workers across Britain: they will not do this effectively if they believe their regional governments will solve their problems for them.

Whether Welsh independence ever becomes a feasible option, further devolution is here to stay. If Welsh Labour and Plaid say that the Assembly can protect Welsh workers from Tory policies, we must hold them to that. If they claim to stand for socialism and equality then we say we expect them to fight to retain the progressive aspects of the Welsh public sector—free prescriptions, no “free schools” or academies, retention of EMA, etc. At the same time we build grassroots campaigns against the cuts and the bedroom tax, involving Labour and Plaid councillors and Assembly members, and arguing for no evictions for bedroom tax arrears. If a revived Labour left, of which there has been some evidence in Wales,82 begins to emerge, we argue that a thoroughgoing and consistent fightback means resistance by the Assembly and by councils to Westminster cuts, not simply rhetorical opposition. If devolution gives us greater autonomy we should use that space to organise resistance. Welsh Labour retains political support, and undercuts Plaid, through differentiating itself from “London Labour”. However, Ed Miliband’s contortions over the union funding row, but also his welcome attempts to express some of the popular discontent with austerity, will also have an effect. We need to engage with these arguments. But we should simultaneously be under no illusions about the “improvements” the Assembly is promoting in health and education—these are cuts by another name.

Although there is no solution to the crisis through nationalist politics, the election of Leanne Wood as Plaid leader represents an attempt to compete with Labour for the allegiance of socialists and trade unionists. We need to debate with Plaid about what constitutes real socialism, and how it can be achieved, and support the left in Plaid against its conservatives. Plaid has a good record of opposition to militarism and imperialism, and of involvement in direct action, and we should seek to work alongside Plaid members in campaigns against austerity, war, racism and on environmental issues. The Welsh language may well become a real issue as austerity deepens and areas to cut are sought. Socialists should fight to defend the language, but we need to recognise its capacity to polarise working class opinion, and must develop a more detailed analysis of its political and class function. In electoral terms, Plaid Cymru is often viewed as a “left alternative” to Welsh Labour, and it often benefits when disillusionment with Labour becomes apparent. This presents difficulties for building a socialist electoral alternative, as does the plethora of left groups in parts of south Wales, which splits the vote. Serious consideration needs to be given as to how we overcome this, and whether an electoral coalition would be workable. We want further devolution with more tax-raising powers because we want a real debate about social priorities and the proper use of resources, including renewable energy, especially as councils introduce fracking and a Plaid AM comes out in support of nuclear power.

Lenin castigated the Proudhonists who “repudiated” the national problem “in the name of the social revolution”. Socialists, he argued, should not turn their backs on:

what the bourgeoisie describes as the “utopian” struggle for the freedom of nations to secede, but, on the contrary, to take more advantage than ever before of conflicts arising also on this ground for the purpose of rousing mass action and revolutionary attacks upon the bourgeoisie.83

It is precisely in this spirit that we should approach the issues of Welsh devolution and independence.


1: Maxwell, 2013.

2: Go to

3: BBC News, 2012.

4: Slugger O’Toole, 2012.

5: Commission on Devolution in Wales, 2012.

6: BBC Poll (Go to

7: Sparrow, 2012.

8: Electoral Commission, 2011.

9: BBC Wales Poll:

10: For the 1999 election results go to:

11: Maxwell, 2013.

12: Maxwell, 2013.

13: Wood, 2012.

14: Evans, 2013b.

15: Evans, 2013a.

16: WalesOnline, 2013

17: For the public consulation document go to:

18: McWatt, 2013.

19: WalesOnline, 2012a.

20: Go to

21: Go to

22: Go to

23: Keates, 2013.

24: Go to

25: Go to

26: Kimber, 1999, p42.

27: Williams, 1985, p180.

28: Evans, 1988, p149.

29: Morgan, 1983, p43.

30: Hughes, 2012.

31: Kimber, 1999, p42.

32: Price, 2004.

33: Morris, 2012.

34: Mason, 2012.

35: Discussion with Ian Thomas.

36: Go to

37: Go to

38: Richard Wyn Jones argues that the accusations of fascism have been much overstated, often by Labour politicians more interested in tarnishing Plaid’s reputation; Shipton, 2013.

39: Quoted in Williams, 1985, p280.

40: Williams, 1985, p281.

41: Williams, 1985, p281

42: Thomas, 1991, pp53-56.

43: Kimber, 1999, pp39-40.

44: Williams, 1990, pp17-19.

45: Thomas, 1991, pp83-88.

46: Go to

47: Kimber, 1999, p40.

48: Kimber, 1999, p41.

49: Leanne Wood talks of “decentralised community socialism” with much emphasis on cooperatives, as opposed to Labour’s supposedly more “centralist” approach.

50: Williams, 1990, p40.

51: Go to

52: Davidson, 2012, p33.

53: Labour AM Vaughan Gething, quoted in WalesOnline, 2012b.

54: Peter Hain, quoted in Williamson, 2012.

55: Hooper, 2008.

56: Harman, 2003.

57: Harman, 2003, p44.

58: Friedman, 1999.

59: Traynor, 2012.

60: Hetherington, 2001.

61: Giddens, 2002.

62: Go to

63: Go to

64: Go to

65: Montgomerie, 2012.

66: Heseltine, 2012.

67: Groome and Pickard, 2012.

68: Davidson, 2012, p33.

69: For the Mori poll go to

70: Giddens, 2002.

71: Peterkin, 2013.

72: Lenin, 1964.

73: Harte, 2012,

74: Davidson, 2007, p36.

75: Davidson, 2000, p41.

76: Callinicos and Simons, 1985, pp84-92.

77: Lenin, 1964.

78: Griffiths, 2012.

79: Price, 2011.

80: Go to

81: Go to

82: A People’s Assembly in Pontypridd on 18 September 2013 attracted nearly 100 people, with Owen Jones and Leanne Wood among the speakers.
Go to

83: Lenin, 1964.


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