SC Cook

SC Cook

Covid & the Union: ‘Alienation from Westminster is Terminal’

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SC Cook looks at the strain on the union from a Welsh perspective, and draws on strategic debates about independence in Scotland. This was first published at Voice.Wales.

On Monday 19 october, Welsh Government proposed a national form of lockdown far more restrictive than anything in England. The two week ‘fire break’ represents the most significant difference in Covid responses between the governments in Cardiff and Westminster to date. In Scotland, support for independence is at record levels while the imposition of tougher restrictions in Manchester without proper financial support has generated a furious backlash against the Tory government. All these issues are heightening demands for freedom from Westminster rule and true political autonomy.

In Wales, the issue of independence now has far greater political reach (the membership of campaign group YesCymru is booming) and the whole situation has rattled unionists. 

Just last week, the decision by First Minister Mark Drakeford to put in place restrictions on people travelling into Wales from English Covid hotspots, in the same way that happens in Wales, infuriated Tories and was outright opposed by Boris Johnson. 

Speaking after the move was announced, the Tory MP and Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg called it ‘unconstitutional’ in a response to another Tory MP -Alicia Kearns – asking if it would be ‘illegal’ for Weslh government to restrict travel between England and Wales.

“What would you expect of a hard left Labour government?” Rees-Mogg replied.

The idea that Welsh Labour – a government that, among other things, has consistently failed to protect low paid renters from their wealthy landlords or fight austerity- is ‘hard left’ was met with wide scale derision. 

But his comments were part of a genuine panic among Tories about the total unravelling of their Covid strategy and with it the integrity of the union itself. 

The Welsh Secretary Simon Hart wrote to Mark Drakeford demanding answers, saying “this approach risks stirring division and confusion in Wales.” He even went as far as asking if Mark Drakeford had conducted an ‘equalities analysis’ of the plans, a strange question for an MP who voted against accepting unaccompanied child refugees into Britain. 

Former Welsh Tory leader Andrew RT Davies called the measures ‘balmy’ and ‘cack-handed’ while Alun Cairns labelled them ‘anti-English.’ 

The string of reaction from Tory’s both sides of the border is another flashpoint in an ongoing fracture of the British state made more pronounced with Covid and Brexit. 

“It’s definitely going to make it explicitly clear to people – if they weren’t already aware – that there is a difference between living in Wales and living England…and at least shows the theoretical possibility that both can make political decisions separately [or] independently from one or another,” says Gareth Leaman, a writer from Newport and independence supporter. 

“As for the effect it’ll have on independence – I think it’s going to force the question… and we’re heading towards a binary choice between full independence and abolishment of devolution.” 

Gareth, who is currently writing an article on the Welsh indy movement, says either outcome could be as likely as each other at the moment. “Support for independence might be growing, but so is the desire among right-wingers to suppress it.”

Mark Drakeford himself has consistently voiced his support for the union and against the idea of Welsh independence, but the political and social reality of Covid has forced him to act without the support of Westminster. 

Even though Wales has generally been more cautious in terms of Covid restrictions- an approach that’s received public support when compared to the low bar in England- Government has nevertheless made huge errors. 

On Friday, Drakeford admitted that there were ‘hardly any’ cases in late August in Wales, raising questions of why the virus wasn’t contained more effectively then.

He chose to buy into the discredited testing system set up by the Tory government using a raft of big outsourcing firms. Local lockdowns have not been as effective as hoped and even the measures announced yesterday contain big gaps, while two weeks may not be long enough to stop the virus getting out of control. Another factor is the refusal by the UK treasury to bring the new furlough scheme forward by one week, leading to a growing sense of anger at Westminster which is being mirrored elsewhere.

On the same day the travel ban was announced, a poll put support for an independent Scotland at 58%. I spoke to Jonathon Shafi, a socialist and activist for an independent Scotland, about what was behind this surge in support. 

“There are lots of reasons for this, ranging from the democratic deficit over Brexit, to years of austerity and the widespread revulsion of Boris Johnson,” says Jonathon, who helped set up the Radical Independence Campaign at the time of the referendum and is an editor of Conter. 

“The question now is how the Tories relate to the Scottish dimension. Do they accept a new referendum should there be another mandate for one at next year’s Scottish election? Or do they try to weather the storm? Certainly, it makes Johnson’s position more unstable, and it is possible we will see his exit sooner than later as a result.”

As the record poll was announced, Jonathon tweeted that “alienation from Westminster was now terminal.” Just as in Wales though, he says that the growth in support for independence brings its own issues for the movement to face. These are at a more advanced stage than in Wales, but contain valuable lessons for campaigners here. 

“On currency, the SNP leadership favour sterlingisation [but] that would mean economic control would effectively stay with the U.K,” Jonathon says, stating the need for Scotland to have “full economic autonomy.. to allow for the kind of social transformation that so many independence campaigners want to see be made a reality.”

Then there is the question of a referendum itself, something which Boris Johnson has said he won’t allow. “That will demand mass mobilisation from an extra-parliamentary movement that can agitate for self-determination.” 

He cautions that even though the polls are exciting and give people confidence, it would be a mistake to rest on them and there is still a long way to go before “meaningful independence” is secured. 

Part of this process involves separating out the interests of what Jonathon describes at the pro-independence corporate lobby and the working classes who were enthused in 2014.  

“Then, a mass people’s movement took the U.K. establishment by surprise, but they also took the Scottish establishment by surprise too,” he explains. “Now, the SNP prospectus has been captured by corporate interests, and their negotiating position as outlined by the Growth Commission would reinforce much of the economic orthodoxy that has failed the working class.” 

He says that for this reason the independence movement in Scotland – and especially the left of the movement – “must set out a distinct programme which can challenge the British state, as well as the corporate lobby in Scotland.”

Similar class dynamics may become more pronounced in Wales as independence gathers support. For now they are more obscured, but at a time of rising poverty and unemployment, movements aiming to change society for the better can’t be coy about where the blame lies for rampant inequality. 

“I think for it to be successful [the indy movement] needs to make sure they’re explicit about the material benefits independence offers,” says Gareth, arguing that if it is purely framed as a question of national sovereignty it risks reducing the issue “to a Wales v Britain culture war.”

The link between struggles associated with the crisis of capitalism and the British state will also be key. Just this week, a sign appeared in Manchester saying ‘Northern Republic Now!,’ as anger intensifies over the Tory government’s disastrous Covid response and imposition of restrictions without adequate financial help. The fight – led by Manchester regional Mayor Andy Burnham – has taken the Tories by surprise and further destroyed their authority, strengthening the sense of us vs them or working class people vs the Etonian elite.

In Northern Ireland, a new six week lockdown, next year’s centenary of partition and Brexit all have the potential to strengthen the demand for an Irish unification referendum. In a recent poll, the proposal received 45% support in Northern Ireland. 

On Wednesday, Yes for Unity (The Left Campaign for Irish Unity ), Yes Cymru and the Scottish independence alliance All Under One Banner are meeting over Zoom in an event titled ‘Coronavirus and the End of the UK.’

If these individual struggles become a viable alternative to disaster capitalism, they have the clear potential not only to inspire each other, but different forms of resistance elsewhere as well.

“During the 2014 referendum the independence movement – and especially the independence left – made great efforts to build international support and to display solidarity with a range of global struggles,” Jonathon explains. He says that it’s vital that this internationalist outlook is retained and extended, and that closer links are built between activists in Scotland and elsewhere.

“We have a lot to learn from the Welsh independence movement, and by exchanging ideas and resources we can work together to ensure the most progressive outcome from the ongoing disintegration of the British state is achieved.” 

Image: Tim Evans

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