Clear Red Water. The line, written but not spoken, in Rhodri Morgan’s 2002 speech in Swansea to the Socialist Health Association, defined large aspects of his premiership. It created the idea that in Wales public services would be run differently than in England. For example, In England, the Blair government’s agenda focused on providing patients the choice of hospitals. In Wales, where no such choice was possible, government would focus on ensuring that all hospitals were run as well as they could be. It brought concepts such as progressive universalism into action in Wales, the introduction of free prescriptions is a shining example of this. The idea that services reserved for the poor, quickly become poor services was fundamental to the rejection of means tested public services. It was distinctly Welsh; it was distinctly socialist.
In the intervening years between Mark Drakeford writing that speech as a Special Advisor and becoming First Minister himself, the mantra took on a life of its own. It became more than an economic outlook; it began to explain fundamental aspects of Welsh Labour’s success. In Wales, you could vote for Labour, not only because they were left-wing, but because they were also quintessentially Welsh. They were socialism wrapped in the Draig Coch and most importantly, they were not just another party being run from London.
However, during his campaign for the Welsh Labour leadership, Mark Drakeford said that Clear Red Water would no longer be required when he became First Minister. What he meant was that he saw no reasons to distance himself from the economic prospectus being espoused by UK Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Unfortunately, he was wrong to do so for two reasons. Firstly, fundamental differences remain between how England and Wales expect public services to be delivered. We will always need Welsh solutions to Welsh problems. And secondly, because it gave the strong impression that Welsh Labour would now take its instruction from the other end of the M4. That they were no longer a Welsh Party, but merely a branch office under the rule of Jeremy Corbyn. Whilst this would be welcomed by many, including numerous members of the Labour party in Wales, to large swathes of the Welsh public who pay attention, who were being told this was the case by Welsh and UK media, to them it was an anathema. It was a perfect opportunity for Plaid to promote themselves as the true party of Wales, taking votes from soft nationalists who had previously voted Labour and numbers of others who viewed themselves as left wing but did not wish to vote for the party under Jeremy Corbyn.
Drakeford, has, in fact seemed overly wedded to the concept of the United Kingdom. Only a few months ago, he rightly said that if Scotland were to leave the UK, the Welsh Government would have to reassess Wales’ place within this voluntary union. Within 24 hours, Drakeford stated he had not, in fact, said what he definitely said, and he remained committed to Wales remaining in the United Kingdom.
This move coupled with his repudiation of Clear Red Water shows to me that Drakeford did not understand the way the water is flowing. Brexit has shown that, as currently constituted, the UK will struggle to survive. It needs to change, and its weaknesses need to be addressed. This is one of the many reasons why Labour in Scotland have ceased to be a serious electoral prospect and Drakeford’s loyalty to this failed form of union has the potential to do the same to Labour’s electoral prospects in Wales. To be fair to the First Minister he has begun to respond to these challenges with the Welsh Government document ‘Reforming our Union: Shared Governance in the UK’. However, questions remain whether the document goes far enough.
This does not mean that Labour needs to suddenly advocate Welsh independence, but it does need to realise that many young people in Wales no longer view the Union in the same way as past generations. This is especially true for those on the left.
Devolution has changed the way that many view our state. For many in their teens, twenties, and early thirties there will be no real recollection of a Unitary state, the Senedd is a major part of their political consciousness. Many in our movement are Indy curious, interested by the concept of Federalism and Confederalism. Recent polling had ~40% of Labour members in Wales being open to the concept of Independence. If we wrap ourselves in the Union Flag where once we wore the Draig we will haemorrhage support to Plaid and they will become the party of Wales in seats, as well as name.
Polling released on St David’s Day shows a strong appetite amongst voters for further powers to be devolved to the Senedd. Welsh Labour would be wise to be bold and once again embrace its status as the party constantly calling for more responsibility for Wales’ self-governance. It can begin by working cross party to increase the number of Members of the Senedd and continue by being more awkward and less of an easily acquiesced partner in the Union.
Boris Johnson’s refusal to fully engage the Welsh Government in the Brexit deal negotiations has breathed some fire into Mark Drakeford and other Ministers such as Jeremy Miles and they do now seem to question how equal this Union is really. The First Minister has said that he has no sentimental attachment to the United Kingdom, merely a practical one.
In Senedd committee hearings the First Minister has shown his desire to redraw the lines of what we consider sovereignty in the UK to mean. With his preference being that sovereignty rests with the constituent nations of the UK. Something that sounds a lot like a confederal UK to me. These are promising steps by Mark Drakeford; however, he must be prepared to do more.
We equally must be prepared to fight for the very future of devolution. Boris Johnson was already keen to have a say in how money was spent in devolved areas in Wales, he also seems keen on building the M4 relief road. His close links to Dominic Cummings and appointment of Matthew Elliot as treasury advisor, both leaders of campaigns against devolution in 2004, lead me to believe that small state Conservatives, buttressed by Brexit and continued low trust in politicians make the Senedd a perfect target for assault. Gareth Bennett and the Brexit Party AMs have begun this attack already, desperately trying to find a grievance to use as political capital in next year’s election. Welsh Labour must again embrace the mantra of Clear Red Water to repel any campaign to strip the Senedd of powers. They must be prepared to be proud of the fact there are uniquely Welsh solutions to the problems we face and to create them, we need to Strengthen our Senedd.
The Assembly is still, to many, a confusing institution, to which they attach very little everyday relevance to their lives. Those who sit in its Siambr and those who wish it to remain must prepare to fight for its survival, but before that they must fight to strengthen the institution. Not only by increasing the powers it possesses to legislate and scrutinise, by bringing it closer to the people of Wales and creating legislation which truly improve their lives. It must become more radical or it will risk oblivion. The stakes could not be higher for Wales.