Socialism through devolution?

Issue: 126

Tim Evans

Nick Davies and Darren Williams, Clear Red Water: Welsh Devolution and Socialist Politics (Francis Bootle Publishers, 2009), £7.99

Nick Davies and Darren Williams have written a thought-provoking book, which has been compared to the classic 1912 pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step. The authors call for Welsh Labour to put into practice a more consistently socialist programme. They argue for a distinctive way of delivering public services which avoids the marketisation and outsourcing characteristic of New Labour and for a greater engagement with Plaid Cymru, the Greens and other left, campaigning and political groups. They argue that “the members of all these groups should be encouraged to become part of a red-green alliance based on a renewed Welsh socialist project”.

The book’s title refers to a speech made by former Welsh first minister Rhodri Morgan at Swansea University in 2002, in which he talked about his socialist beliefs and the limits of market-based policies. Foundation hospitals, specialist schools and the privatisation of public services would not be pursued in Wales. Adam Price, the left Plaid Cymru MP, called it, “massively significant…for all of us who believe in restoring democratic socialism”. While it’s important not to overstate the case, such things as free prescriptions, free school breakfasts and free hospital parking in Wales were real concessions for working people. SATS were scrapped in 2004 and there are no school league tables. It is this “clear red water” between Wales and Westminster that the book examines, looking at how a distinctive Welsh socialist programme might emerge in areas such as public services and the environment.

Devolution in the UK, the writers argue, has created the space for a degree of policy diversity. They mention Ken Livingstone’s period as London Mayor, when he pursued ‘progressive policies’, and the Scottish Parliament’s rejection of the internal market in health, its scrapping of student tuition fees and the introduction of free personal care for older people. The book examines Welsh public services, the economy and the environment, as well as issues of identity and community.

Socialists should certainly support further Welsh devolution: we are for the right of the Welsh and Scottish peoples to decide what constitutional arrangements they want, including independence. We have no interest in maintaining the artificial unity of the British state. But we should be wary of seeing devolution as a solution to workers’ problems. Some Tories already argue for Welsh and Scottish independence as a way of cutting off central government subsidies and letting the harsh winds of unmediated competition blow in these countries.

Devolution is not just a way for the ruling class to seem to meet popular aspirations without threatening the economic order. The more politics is emptied of content, the more important it is for “social liberal” regimes like New Labour to show that democracy is still “meaningful” by multiplying the opportunities, not for a real extension of democratic control, but for “citizen-consumers” to take part in elections for mayors, members of the Welsh and London Assemblies, and the Scottish, European and British Parliaments.

In this context, devolution can become part of a neoliberal strategy of delegation. Thus, as housing finance is not devolved, it is Welsh councils that are expected to push through transfer of housing stock. The case of Ken Livingstone is also instructive. When he was first elected as Mayor of London in 2000, standing as an independent, much of his success was based on his opposition to the privatisation of the London Underground. However, during his eight years in office, during which he rejoined the Labour Party, he increasingly embraced aspects of the neoliberal agenda, eventually supporting the privatisation of the East London Line, demoralising his own supporters and paving the way for Boris Johnson.

Labour and Liberal Democrat councils in Wales are currently pushing through harsh cuts. Nevertheless, to the extent that this book makes the case for a complete rejection of New Labour’s privatisation mania and for the development of a democratic socialist path in Welsh politics, it is to be welcomed. It deserves to be read by all those on the left who are serious about building a strategic challenge to the discredited politics of New Labour and the free market.