If Welsh Politicos Ignore the Brexit Movement, It Will Consume Them

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By David Taylor | 3:19 am, August 19, 2016

The Leave vote shows a Wales gripped by a rebellious, anti-establishment zeitgeist – more so than during any time since the National Assembly came into being.

But the evidence so far is that most politicians in the self-styled Cardiff Bay Bubble are oblivious to the threat this poses to them, and to devolved Welsh government as a whole.

Indeed, the political class is so convinced that it embodies the will of the Welsh people that it has interpreted the move against the EU as a vote of confidence in itself.

Unveiled last week, Wales’s “Brexit Advisory Group” will take input solely from Remain-backing parties, including Plaid Cymru, which is now making an absurd call to develop a completely separate Welsh foreign policy.

Leave supporters have been excluded from discussions – an obvious folly given the strong anti-politics emotion felt by the 52.5% of Welsh voters who wanted us out of the EU.

It is also short-sighted politics, sadly miles away from Theresa May’s shrewdness in ensuring Leave campaigners share responsibility for delivering Brexit. “You broke it, you own it”.

We have become accustomed to the Cardiff Bay Bubble making pompous, self-referential claims about “grown-up politics”. It’s hard to imagine anything more infantile and futile than refusing to play ball with one’s opponents because you resent the fact that they beat you.

The referendum result doesn’t mean that the entire country should fall into line and view Britain’s exit from the EU as permanent and unchallengeable.

Leave supporters would have continued to make their arguments had the result gone the other way, and so should the pro-EU camp.But the Welsh Government is not a pressure group. It has a responsibility to act on the instruction of the people of Wales.

It would do well to quickly wind down its grandstanding and start to acknowledge the result: if Brexit means Brexit, politicians need to show they want the best deal for Wales, not the best deal for themselves.

We need a positive, constructive focus on where a devolved administration can determine interest and help to answer the challenges.

Instead of histrionically demanding vetoes and red-lines in a negotiating process in which they will play no formal part, Welsh Ministers should focus on those areas where they can make a positive difference to people’s lives.

It’s widely recognised that areas which voted Leave are facing increases in hate crime and racism.The Welsh Government could play a leading role in healing divisions in Welsh communities, ensuring the situation doesn’t escalate.Post-Brexit, there will be new opportunities for Wales in international trade. Ken Skates, the economic minister, seems to understand what is needed and should be allowed free rein.

The steel industry will need support to develop new markets. EU rules don’t allow state aid such as emergency loans or government guarantees – but this is now up for consideration.

How can a long-term future be secured for major employers such as Airbus and GE?

Strengthening dialogue with them is a necessary first step. The Welsh Government was wrong to claim that businesses wanted Article 50 triggered as soon as possible in the interests of “certainty”.

 

A more directly engaged Government would understand that most major business leaders in Wales, as in the rest of the UK, want a negotiating position established first.Rather than sweeping, knee-jerk public statement and the creation of grandiose new committees and advisory boards, Wales must work out what it has lost and where the gaps are, to learn where support is really required.

To this end the Welsh Government should work out a functional proposal for Whitehall – something which would be far harder to dismiss than improbable posturing and impossible demands.

It’s understandable that since the advent of devolution politicians have felt a pressing need to develop a soft nationalist, nation-building narrative to give the new institution a firm identity.

However, since the 2011 referendum, when just 23% voted Yes to direct law-making power for the Assembly, barely a week goes by without a cry for more powers, more AMs or grander titles.

The truth is that Wales is neither particularly pro-devolution nor anti-devolution. There is chronic disinterest in the entire project.

The danger is that by mishandling Brexit, this disinterest hardens into opposition, and anti-Assembly feeling could build rapidly if Welsh politicians are seen to ignore the reasons for a Leave vote.

No one who is in favour of devolution would wish to see that happen, but the Assembly has to do more to build and maintain public confidence.

Not so long ago, many believed that the arguments over the EU were settled and that, for all the rantings of David Cameron’s “fruitcakes” and “loonies”, its existence and our participation therein were unassailable.

Who in Welsh Labour would have predicted that many voters would reject the party line and vote against the very institution which had brought them billions of pounds of investment and, supposedly, guaranteed workers’ rights?

One lesson from the EU referendum is that there is no such thing as the “settled will of the people”. The argument about where power should lie is never settled, and never won.

If Wales rejected the collective establishment view on Brexit and took the seismic leap to support leaving an EU that brought in so much cash, rejecting devolution would be an effortless hop.

Wales’s Assembly too often seems preoccupied with augmenting its own power and prestige at the expense of focusing on the serious structural problems in public services, and addressing long-term economic decline.

A change of focus is required. If political leaders fail to grasp this, they should not be surprised if voters one day decide that their institution has become redundant.


David Taylor is a former Labour special adviser to the Secretary of State for Wales. He tweets from @David_Taylor

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