Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:36 pm on 17th January 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 12:36 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for the way he introduced this debate and I dedicate my contribution to the memory of Steffan Lewis AM, who died last Friday at the age of 34. In two brief years in the National Assembly, Steffan had already made a huge impact, not least with the White Paper, Securing Wales’ Future. That document, addressing issues which face Wales in the context of Brexit, gained cross-party support in the Assembly. Steffan Lewis saw quite clearly that Brexit, particularly in its most extreme manifestation, could have significant negative implications for the future relationships in these islands, partly because of the narrow, inward-looking nationalism that underpins much of the Brexit approach. This contrasts with the civic nationalism which we have carefully nurtured in Wales.

The Welsh nation is not a racial construct. We are a mongrel people, defined not by blood and race but by community, culture and values. Those values underpin an outward-looking set of beliefs which recognises everyone in Wales, whatever their language, colour or creed, as full and equal citizens of our country. Our values as a nation have run through our politics. It is no coincidence that Lloyd George led the fight to establish social security and Aneurin Bevan the NHS. Wales is a nation whose roots are deep in our European heritage. In terms of language, culture, religion and traditions, our identity is European and it is an identity we have no intention of abandoning. It is to safeguard our values, communities and culture that we have aspired to greater political self-determination—to greater independence, if you like. But independence is a relative concept and whereas every nation has a right to independence, it also has a responsibility towards its neighbours and the wider world.

Over the past two generations, Wales has secured a considerable degree of independence. In practical terms, we have our own independent education policies; likewise with roads and housing. We make our own laws and determine our own priorities but we also recognise that there are matters, such as environmental issues, which we cannot control alone but must be governed in larger units, be that on a world, a European or indeed a British level.

In determining this, the European concept of subsidiarity should always come into play: matters should be decided as close as possible to the communities on which those decisions impact. Today’s debate is timely, but one of the real dangers is that we see our relationships as a dipole between Brussels and London, rather than as a multilayered, decentralist structure driven by subsidiarity. In that way, we could easily find ourselves centralising on to a British level decisions that have been systematically decentralised over the past two decades within a European framework.

That is why there was so much grief in Cardiff and Edinburgh when we saw—in terms of agricultural policy, industrial development incentives and procurement rules—what was felt to be a power grab by London. This awoke all the old forebodings and generated unnecessary fear. The real danger is that we put into reverse all the gains we have made—in autonomy, identity, assuming responsibility and developing multilateral cultural links—and that we get sucked back into the vortex of a unified, centralised British state.

To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That, more than any other single factor, is what will drive the movement towards greater independence for Wales and Scotland, if that is what happens. It may well be that new structures can be developed in terms of a federal or confederal state which can appropriately serve nations—and indeed regions—with diverse identities, different challenges and our own aspirations. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, is relevant in that regard.

Over the past 12 months, during which Steffan Lewis knew of his bowel cancer, he continued his work with bravery and dedication. He refused to let his illness define his life. Only last month, he proposed Plaid Cymru’s amendment to the Labour Government’s Motion on the withdrawal agreement, spelling out why it should be rejected. To the credit of Labour Members, they recognised Steffan’s case and accepted his amendment.

In the wake of Tuesday’s vote, MPs across party lines may try to secure a sensible compromise, such as a model based on the UK retaining its customs union and single market relationship with the EU, and accepting the free movement of people, goods and money between the countries of Britain and the 27 EU member states as a way forward. If that is so, it will provide a framework within which Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—and indeed England—can develop an evolving relationship, facilitating the maximum degree of self-government to which their peoples aspire, while simultaneously enabling families, businesses and civic society to blossom without the artificial barriers which a blinkered 19th century approach to independence implies.

In conclusion, it is hugely ironic that it is in this context that a key to Britain’s future relationship with Europe may be found. It is an even greater sadness that Steff has not lived to see the relevance of his analysis become centre stage as we contemplate the future relationships of the nations of these islands.