Freedom for Scotland would be ‘a beacon for social justice’ throughout the UK
by Leanne Wood
This is an abridged speech by Leanne Wood, the leader of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru. It was originally published on the UK website OpenDemocracy. The full version is available here.
I have been very conscious throughout the course of your national conversation not to come here and lecture you.
You’ve had too many people coming over Hadrian’s Wall to talk down to you. You won’t get that from me tonight, or ever.
Yes – I believe that a ‘yes’ vote in September would be the best outcome for people here in Scotland. Yes – I believe that a ‘yes’ vote in September would be best for Wales. Yes – I believe that a ‘yes’ vote in September will be best for all the peoples and nations of these islands. But it is your referendum. Your choice.
It’s worth noting, I think, that the United Kingdom and, more generally, the political arrangements on islands, have been subject to constant change.
The current UK constitution can be traced back to the advent of devolution in 1999. Prior to that, the United Kingdom’s constitutional composition was amended in 1948 with the Ireland Act and again before then 1922 with the creation of the Irish Free State. And so on and so on.
You get the picture. To claim that we live in a centuries old, static, union is incorrect. The union remains and always has been, fluid. The question people in Scotland are now asking, and a question that people in my nation will ask too – is whether or not our relationship with one another on these islands is best served through partnership and through a social union…or whether we should remain part of a more rigid and unequal union. A union that will centre on the sovereignty of Westminster.
And let’s make sure we always remember – the sovereignty of Westminster always trumps the demands, hopes and aspirations of the people. A political elite in London will prevail over the will of our peoples for as long as the political union is upheld.
They choose not to hear the people. There are numerous examples that illustrate this point. One that sticks in my mind is that day in February 2003 when millions of us marched to stop the illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq. There are no circumstances I can see whereby an independent Scotland or an independent Wales would have collaborated and joined in that illegal war. But by virtue of our membership of the union, that war was fought in our collective name.
In September you have your chance to ensure that never ever again will your country be dragged into an illegal war against the will of its people. That in itself would seem to me to be a good reason for starting afresh with independence. But of course the opportunities are greater than in just one policy area, even one as big as war.
You may have heard the phrase – from Wales, that devolution is a process not an event. That statement appears to have been accepted. But although even those who want to preserve this political union accept that devolution is a process and not an event, they have never spelt out the destination, the end-point to their process.
Where do they want to go? It’s quite peculiar, from a pro-union point of view, to accept that your nation is involved in a process to which you are unwilling or unable to describe the destination.
Could it be that there is no destination in their minds? Is their vision of a process one that is knee-jerk in nature? One that gives as little as possible and only when the political circumstances demand. It was Tony Blair who said “power devolved, is power retained.”
The most exciting aspect of your national conversation for me, as an outsider looking in, has been the excitement and the engagement the conversation itself has created. Town halls full.
People in shopping centres, in pubs and on social media wanting to engage. This process and the conversation it has generated has reinvigorated democracy in Scotland. That’s what it looks like from outside anyway.
Scottish people will themselves decide on the 18th of September, the outcome of this national conversation. It’s been argued by some that Scotland’s decision to become independent would in some way be an abandonment of the peoples in the rest of these islands. The inference is that a yes vote would be a selfish act, contrary to a spirit of solidarity. That it would confine the rest of us – especially working people to decades of unabated Tory rule.
I have to tackle this point head on. It is simply wrong to say that Scottish votes will save us from Tory rule. Wales and Scotland both voted Labour at the last UK general election, but that made no difference. Both our countries are enduring a government in London that has no mandate from our people. I’m as keen as anyone to be freed of the shackles of Tory rule, but to argue that we should all endure it together, whether we voted for it or not…
that for some reason, solidarity has to equate to collective suffering is to argue for a position that is both perverse and illogical.
To those who argue that solidarity can only be expressed through the collective suffering of all of the peoples of these islands, then surely the logical conclusion is that they should be arguing for an end to the devolution of education and health.
Should not Scots and Welsh students have to endure £9,000 a year tuition fees as an act of solidarity with the people of England? Should not Scots and Welsh patients have to accept the privatisation and the break up of their health services as an act of solidarity?
Of course not. Collective suffering, disguised as solidarity, is a cynical ploy on the part of the No Campaign. Solidarity through uniformity of policy is no solidarity at all. And the ‘No’ camp know that. An attempt at guilting Scots that I’m sure will back fire. For those of us on the left, solidarity with others, of course is a central part of our political paradigm.
And I believe the best way for Scots to show solidarity with the rest of us is through voting ‘yes’. Because a yes vote here will usher in a new period of solidarity through divergence. On the face of it that might appear as a contradiction. But let me outline how solidarity through divergence can work and how it has, in some respects, already begun. The United Kingdom is an unbalanced state.
We know that from every single economic indicator. Average wages. House prices. GVA per head. Unemployment levels.
On every indicator, the London city-state bears almost no resemblance to the rest of the UK. Never mind Scotland declaring independence – London was effectively granted it three decades ago with no referendum.
When the Westminster political elite all agreed on a policy to intentionally deindustrialise places like Wales and Scotland and instead to prioritise the wholesale deregulation of the City, they placed all the economic eggs in the one financial services basket. London was granted effective independence, and it was granted at the expense of the rest of us.
Devolution has started to address the political imbalance of the UK, but without the economic levers that come with being independent, there will always be a limit to our ability to deliver equality, prosperity and social justice.
As I have mentioned, we can already point to Scotland as an example in terms of the different way they have prioritised public health and free education. Scotland gives us in Wales and our progressive friends in England opportunities to point to demonstrable examples of an alternative to neo-liberalism and the politics of austerity.
Just imagine what we could point to if Scotland emerges as an independent country. Having a new state on our doorstep approaching public services in a different, more progressive way compared to what will be left of the UK. Pursuing collaboration not competition. A Scottish state with control over its social protection policy.
This ability to create a different social security regime – one that will refuse to penalise and punish the unemployed, the sick and the disabled. Friends, the greatest act of solidarity you can show us in Wales is to create in your nation a society that rejects the poison of spiteful right-wing rule and build instead a socially just country that will show the way for us all as a beacon in these islands. I call it solidarity through divergence.
By building for yourselves a new future, an alternative future, that will provide us with the context and the opportunity to tangibly point to alternatives as we confront the forces of neo-liberalism in the UK. Scots are known throughout the world for your oil, your food and your whisky. But your greatest export to us after September will be social justice, Scotia style. Solidarity through divergence, isn’t introverted, inward-looking or selfish. Solidarity through divergence is internally selfless, within Scotland, because its basis is standing by those in need.
Externally, solidarity through divergence is selfless because you’ll be setting an example to all your neighbours of what is possible when the social tools are used for the good of society as a whole. And there will be some who argue, ‘there are already examples of different approaches to social and economic policies elsewhere throughout Europe, yet what good has that done in building an alternative to austerity on the island of Britain?’
There’s merit in that observation. But I would respond by saying that the geography, culture and political position of the island of Britain has created several barriers in attempts to import alternatives. Britain is a largely English-speaking island, on the political and geographic periphery of Europe. Free market-ism & neo-liberalism has meant that looking to the Unites States has been favoured in some powerful quarters, over looking towards Europe.
We can see that from the difference given in media coverage to elections in the United States compared to say Germany, even though both have arguably as much of an impact upon our lives.
Imagine, a nation on this island, a new state on our doorstep pursuing a different set of political priorities, building a society based on a different set of values. It would be inescapable.
We already see that when Scottish health and education policies are pointed to by English and Welsh politicians. We saw it in practice when the other administrations of the UK followed your lead in public health policies such as the banning of smoking in public places. And we’ll see it again when you abolish the bedroom tax and provide for your people a wage upon which they can live.
The naysayers tell us that a “yes” vote will create a border, a barrier between Scotland and the rest of us. To me, that says a lot about how they look at the world. I see borders as gateways not barriers. And you have an opportunity for your border to become a new gateway for Scotland to the world. That border has the potential to open up new opportunities for people England too. It could help people in England to find their own national voice and their own new place in the world. If that is what they want.
Increasingly, people in Wales are beginning to consider their own national future….There is no one size fits all route map to statehood.. Following the establishment of the Irish Free State and the creation of a Parliament at Stormont following partition in 1922, a number of home rule groups emerged in Scotland, anticipating home rule here. There was an air of inevitability at that time. As history has shown there is nothing inevitable about the course of history.
Scotland had to wait, like Wales, until 1999 for the first taste of home rule. A lesson for Wales and for Scotland, is that our own fate is in our own hands – if we want it to be. Essentially, that’s the very essence of the question you and your fellow citizens will be answering in September. Do you want control over decisions like war and peace? About a public or private health service?
A non-judgemental social security system that meets the needs of those unable to fully meet their own? About child care?
About the ability to properly protect yourselves with similar trades union rights to the ones that were taken away from you by Thatcher and kept from you by a Labour Westminster government? Having decent trades union laws in place may well have protected some of the downgrading in workers terms and conditions we have seen in recent years.
They have kept telling us that there is no alternative. Well the people of Scotland are showing us that there absolutely is an alternative. And it is within your grasp. You are being given the chance to decide whether your next steps and your political direction lies in your hands or in the hands of others.
The same applies to Wales. Plaid Cymru advocates that at the very least, Wales must move from a model of devolution now to a model of self-government. That’s more than a matter of semantics. Yes, we believe in a ‘powers reserved’ model of government, but unlike the London-based parties, the Party of Wales wants powers reserved to Wales – not London. It should be up to the people of Wales to decide what decisions are made at home and what powers we choose to share with others. I’ll give you what I consider to be a powerful example of why powers should be shared on certain matters in the meantime, rather than powers being wholly reserved to London on behalf of Wales.
Following a ‘yes’ vote in September among your country’s priorities will be the removal of nuclear weapons from Scottish territorial waters. That process will involve their relocation, probably to another part of what is left of the UK. I say, under no circumstances at all, should those weapons be relocated to Wales against the wishes of the people of Wales. And I can tell you tonight, that the Plaid Cymru government I will lead from 2016, will not, under any circumstances, allow our nation to be the dumping ground for unwanted, immoral, weapons of mass destruction.
I very much look forward to this great city again leading a new beginning for the people of Scotland in September. And I’ll ask you, in a few years from now, to take time out of your efforts of building a new country from an old nation, to keep an eye on the Rhondda playing its part in the building of a new, fair and free Wales.
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