This month marks forty years of UK membership of the European Union. The anniversary coincides with increasing pressure for a referendum on whether the UK leaves the EU.
I see Wales’s future firmly within the EU but not accepting the current arrangements where the UK government speaks, and, more importantly, votes on our behalf. The Welsh national interest is quite distinct from that of the UK. Over the past year we have had proof of that again in our fight to continue European regional funding and agricultural payments which are so important for rebuilding our economy.
The UK wants to claw back as much money as possible for its Treasury. That includes slashing the EU budget as it has slashed UK public spending. Successive UK governments – Labour as well as Conservative and Liberal – have tried to ‘repatriate’ this funding. But we know from long experience that Wales would not get its rightful share in that event.
We are distinct in another sense too. The recent council elections show that there is a growing divide between the electorates of Wales and England. Yes, UKIP made gains across England. But despite standing in every ward in Anglesey, they failed to elect a single councillor. Plaid Cymru, on the other hand, achieved its highest ever vote for a council election and emerged as the largest party.
While in Wales, the alternative to the ‘big-three’ British parties was this shift leftwards, in England’s case it went the other way. The rise of UKIP represents a serious challenge to the London-based parties. The BBC stated that the notional share of the votes was as follows: Labour 29 per cent, Conservatives 25 per cent, UKIP 23 per cent, and Liberal Democrats 14 per cent. While it would be foolish to be complacent about UKIP in Wales, especially with the high percentage of British/English identifiers here, we have to look at the facts. It is clear that the situation in England with UKIP’s emergence is not reflected in the politics of Wales. Yet the newsreaders tell us excitedly of UKIP’s rise in ‘Britain’.
In Wales UKIP has one MEP and two councillors. It outpolled the Tories and Lib Dems on Anglesey, but did not come close to Plaid Cymru, Labour or the results picked up by independents. Broadly speaking, UKIP is in fifth place in Wales. Successive opinion polls here show UKIP gaining much less success than in England. A UK parliamentary by-election result like South Shields, where UKIP finished second in a Labour safe seat, would scarcely be credible in Wales. The closest recent comparison we have is the Cardiff South and Penarth by-election. UKIP made no improvement on fifth place and finished behind Plaid Cymru. We achieved our best ever result. There has been some real political divergence between Wales and England. This deserves to be recognised in the ‘UK-wide’ media. Their current picture is distorted.
This is our opportunity to develop a distinct alternative to the increasingly right-wing politics on show in England. The major parties there could well now shift to the right to try and undermine or triangulate UKIP. If this happens, it will become even more obvious to progressives in Wales that we need to get significantly more powers devolved in the short-term. In order to properly reflect our peoples’ values and politics, the National Assembly will have to become the primary governing institution in Wales rather than Westminster.
Plaid Cymru recognises that Wales is not immune to the politics of the right. We know that UKIP will be defending its European seat next year. They will no doubt aim for Assembly seats in 2016, utilising the opportunities offered by the PR element of the regional list. People justly have genuine economic-related concerns to which UKIP’s simple rhetoric will undoubtedly appeal. Anger and disillusionment about the cost of living, worsening terms and conditions in work and cuts in benefits and public services create a backlash against the ‘establishment’.
In Wales Plaid Cymru provides a progressive alternative with a different message on the EU. If there is to be a referendum, it has to be preceded by an open and honest debate on the future of Wales in Europe. This would include the changes necessary to enable us to engage directly with the EU and play a full part in decision making.
The UK interest works against the Welsh national interest. If people are to vote on our continuing EU membership, they must have all the facts on how it affects Welsh jobs and communities. In addition, we will demand that the result for Wales is separately declared to ensure that the people of Wales are the ones who decide on our nation’s future.