31. Scotland, Wales and the devolution bills


Soon after the 1997 general election the New Labour government pushed through referendum bills for Scotland and Wales. The national question in Britain, which we have explained elsewhere1, emerged as a key issue as the economic and political power of British imperialism waned. In the past the working class directed their gaze towards the Labour Party and the trade unions to realise their goals, which were partly satisfied by the reforms carried out by Labour governments. However, the failure of Labour governments together with the weakening of capitalism removed these factors and allowed a space for the development of nationalism furthered, ironically, by the nationalist tinge evident in the propaganda and agitation of some on the Scottish left, particularly the Communist Party.

This did not manifest itself in support for outright independence in the first instance, even in Scotland which consistently expressed stronger nationalist leanings than Wales, with demands for greater national rights, including the need for their own parliaments. Militant, even under the Labour government of the late 1970s, supported the legitimate national aspirations of the peoples of Scotland and Wales and the demand for a referendum on this issue. Others who were then on the left, such as Neil Kinnock, implacably opposed this. The defeat of the Scottish referendum in 1979 was a factor in the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) decision to trigger a general election. It voted against the minority Labour government in a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, leading to the 1979 general election being called early and a victory for the Thatcher-led Tories.

By the advent of Tony Blair’s Labour government, Labour had caught up with the mood in Scotland and to some extent Wales. Soon after the 1997 general election this led quickly to the pushing through of referendum bills. Scottish Socialist Voice – the sister paper of the Socialist – backed the drive for a massive Yes vote, “but only as a stepping stone to a Scottish Parliament with real powers”. Just weeks before the general election, however, 53% of the population did not believe the Scottish Parliament would be set up but the post-election mood and momentum was so strong (and the Tories had been crushed in Scotland in the election) that a referendum and a Yes vote seemed certain.2 The Scottish working class was decisive in ensuring a Labour victory. However, we pointed out that New Labour’s proposals for a Scottish Parliament “will not have any say over employment, the economy and benefits…” “This inability to tackle problems” would worsen “if New Labour initially gain a majority in the new parliament”, unless real powers were given to the parliaments and decisive action undertaken which favoured working class people.3

In the Scottish referendum which followed there was an overwhelming Yes vote, although the turnout in Glasgow, for instance, was only 51%. Nonetheless, a total of 1.75 million people voted Yes in Scotland. The vote in favour of tax raising powers was carried by a two to one majority, reflecting the pressure for change. Not a single council area voted No to the first question, the setting up of a Scottish Parliament or Assembly. Only Orkney and Dumfries & Galloway voted against tax raising powers. Glasgow voted 83% for a Scottish Parliament.

In Wales it was not even certain that the working class would respond to the anodyne non-political campaign of Labour, ‘Yes for Wales’. The Socialist reported: “Many working class people hostile to local politicians and MPs suspect that the Assembly will be just another gravy train for the politicians to climb aboard.” On the  other hand, there was little support for the ‘Just Say No’ campaign, financed by prominent bankers and Welsh tax exiles. The Welsh Socialist Alliance, in which Socialist Party members participated – as we did in the Scottish Socialist Alliance – produced leaflets calling for a Yes vote. At the same time, we called for an Assembly with real powers to fundamentally change the conditions of the Welsh working class. 4

There was a difference between West Wales, which voted for the Assembly, and the eastern border areas which voted No. It was, however, the working class areas of the South Wales Valleys which proved to be decisive in carrying the Yes vote. Generally, working class people voted Yes although a broad layer stayed at home, unconvinced by New Labour’s proposals. This knocked some of the gloss off the New Labour leaders in Wales who had been basking in the afterglow of the general election victory. They had banked on delivering a big Labour vote for the Assembly by carefully scripted appearances of Blair. But only 40% turned out, indicating a lack of enthusiasm, particularly in areas where Blair had made “high-profile appearances”: Cardiff and Wrexham. The 8% majority in Cardiff against setting up an Assembly reflected the class divisions in the capital. Many of the middle class suburbs voted by 90% against devolution and it was clear there was a 50-50 split in working class areas.

The demand of Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales) and the Socialist Party in Wales for full legislative powers for the Assembly was supported by 32% of Welsh people, compared to 19% for New Labour’s proposals. Dave Reid commented: “Ironically, Scotland’s decisive vote for a Parliament with tax raising powers emphasised the weaknesses of the Welsh Assembly. Had Wales had the same options to vote for as Scotland then the margin of support would have been greater.” Our comrades in Wales warned that disillusionment would affect Labour and could play into the hands of Plaid Cymru which was well placed to make gains by “posing as a socialist party and offering reforms… threatening Labour in its Valleys strongholds”.5

The nationalist parties would not have it all their own way, however. They were in competition on the left with the Socialist Party. We challenged them in elections, particularly through the Socialist Alliances which had a strong presence in Scotland and Wales. For instance, in September 1998 the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) recorded 10% of the vote in Labour’s safest seat on Glasgow City Council, Possil. Overall, there was a swing towards the SNP. This was just one portent of the success of the SSA in future elections.

In Wales the manoeuvring of New Labour to ensure that the Welsh Assembly would be in a ‘safe pair of hands’ led to a stitch up, which saw the election of Blair’s puppet Alun Michael as leader of Labour in the Assembly over Rhodri Morgan, favoured by most Labour members in Wales. Blair was forced to rely on a few rightwing trade union leaders to push through support for Michael. Even Roy Hattersley, firmly on the Labour right in the past, complained in the Times newspaper about Blair’s role: “Nicolae Ceauşescu [the Romanian Stalinist dictator] did not live in vain.” This played into the hands of Plaid Cymru, whose support in polls doubled to 20% compared to the election.6

At the same time a socialist campaign embracing a number of organisations – the Socialist Party, the Welsh Socialist Alliance (WSA), Cymru Goch (a socialist/nationalist organisation), and the SWP – was launched in preparation for the Welsh Assembly elections. Alec Thraves declared at its launch: “Plaid Cymru, despite some socialist rhetoric in certain parts of Wales, still support the market economy which is the root cause of our problems. There is a deep socialist tradition in Wales and our United Socialist-Sosialaidd candidates are giving the Welsh electorate the opportunity for a genuine socialist alternative.” Unfortunately, Arthur Scargill refused to allow the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) to participate in any kind of agreement with the WSA. Incredibly, his justification for this was that the Socialist Party was elitist in supporting the European Union, ignoring our consistent opposition to the capitalist EU for 25 years.7 It was this kind of sectarian and dishonest approach which undermined the SLP and led to its collapse – and the unfortunate demise of Scargill himself, who could have played a key role in the development of a mass workers’ party in Britain.  Disillusionment with the new government led quite rapidly to a general growth of forces to the left of Labour, although not in the first instance in Wales because of the existence of Plaid Cymru, which promoted a socialist image of itself. There was a big swing to Plaid Cymru, especially in South Wales. It won three of Labour’s previously safe seats in working class heartlands. Labour’s share of the vote crashed to 35% from 55% at the general election, while Plaid’s rose from 9% to 30%. Meanwhile, the socialist campaign was welcomed by working class people, with many workers making favourable remarks about the United Socialists’ broadcast and hundreds of people showing support at the street stalls set up. This did not translate into votes because of the attraction at that stage of Plaid. Yet any new councils run by them would either have to stand up against New Labour’s cuts and privatisation or, more likely carry them out and try to blame New Labour in Westminster – which is what Plaid did, as Labour councils have done since the Tories came to power.