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  Top » Catalog » Pages » Reviews
Clear Red Water: Welsh Devolution and Socialist Politics by Nick Davies & Darren Williams

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This meticulously researched and impeccably produced volume is the remarkable achievement of Welsh Labour Grassroots, a network of left and centre-left activists in the Wales Labour Party who campaign for democratic renewal and the development of a socialist policy agenda within the Welsh Labour Party. It is not surprising to discover that they regret Labour's shift to the right under Messrs Blair and Brown. They recoil with distain from the Bush/Blair ‘War on Terror’ in foreign policy, and from the privatisation of public services and the widening gap between rich and poor at home following the American neo-con paradigm. They are strong supporters of Welsh devolution and welcome the ‘clear red water’ that increasingly distinguishes Wales from England in areas like health, education and public services. The celebrated phrase, that gives the book its title, comes from a speech given by Rhodri Morgan at the University of Swansea at the close of 2002 in which he spoke with pride of his commitment to socialism, of the limits of market-based politics and of the crucial importance of social solidarity.

No big surprises, so far, but what may raise eyebrows, especially for readers beyond Wales, is that the authors’ preferred partner in a coalition government is Plaid Cymru. They note that it is the only other party in the Assembly apart from Welsh Labour to have a commitment to socialism written into its constitution. Their support for the European Union, albeit cautiously expressed, might also be unexpected in some quarters, the authors noting the right-wing nationalist culture of opposition exemplified by UKIP and preferring instead the objective of transforming the economic and political space of Europe through an active participation in the wider European democratic process. A close reading of the book, however, reveals that these twin policy objectives are two sides of the same coin, one that neatly mirrors the Welsh Grassroots campaign for greater democracy and transparency in the Labour Party and for the reversal of the changes implemented over the past generation that have seen power concentrated in the hands of the leadership.

This is all as remarkable as it is welcome. When Plaid was establishing itself as a credible political force following Gwynfor Evans’ by-election victory in Carmarthen on Bastille Day in 1966, Gwynfor himself and the party he single-handedly represented was subject to years of utter vilification from the concerted ranks of Old Labour. We remember Neil Kinnock for his spirited and successful opposition to any idea of Welsh devolution. Welsh Labour Grassroots represents a new space that has opened up between the now largely discredited New Labour on the one hand and what are here called Labour-unionists, not so much Old Labour as dinosauric Labour, on the other. It was, of course, the Thatcher era, and the resultant devastation of the Old Labour Welsh heartlands, that brought about this seismic shift in political allegiances, neatly encapsulated by the celebrated line of graffiti that appeared on a railway bridge in Ron Davies’s Caerffili constituency: ‘We voted Labour – we got Thatcher.’ By 1997, no Tory MPs represented Wales at Westminster and by a wafer-thin majority a Welsh National Assembly had been established, with Plaid Cymru as second party with a greatly increased share of the vote. A left-wing pressure group arguing the case for language impact assessments in Y Fro Gymraeg, which is what we find in these pages, would have been unthinkable a generation ago. How we arrived at this point is brilliantly explained in the opening contextual chapters of this book.

The second half of the book provides detailed analysis of the policy achievements of the Welsh Assembly Government, latterly a Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition founded on the One Wales programme, and sounds a generally positive though not uncritical note on the ways in which policies have diverged from their counterparts in England as controlled by New Labour. Welsh Grassroots is convinced of the desirability of extending the National Assembly’s powers so that the achievements of its first decade can be consolidated and extended. We learn that Wales is one of only three countries in the world with a legally binding duty to promote sustainable development enshrined in its constitution and that Wales is now up there with the Scandinavian countries in having a high proportion of women in the parliamentary body; indeed, albeit briefly, the National Assembly at one point had a female majority in its cabinet. The absence of any discussion on Welsh agricultural policy or mention of Elin Jones, the highly regarded – and female – agriculture minister is therefore a regrettable and uncharacteristic omission in the book, a throwback to the wrong sort of Old Labour.

So, against the grain of the times, this is a hopeful and invigorating book which has the potential to be a platform on which a progressive Welsh political agenda can be delivered for the new century. It remains to be seen whether this splendid book can register as effectively as it deserves to do, given the limited media coverage devoted to the serious discussion of Welsh affairs within Wales, a uniquely disgraceful aspect of the democratic deficit discussed in this volume which any new Cardiff administration should take steps to remedy.

David Barnes
A review from, reproduced with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.



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24 March 2018, Museum of London Elizabeth Crawford joins a panel discussion on the legacy of the suffrage movement through the eyes of contemporary writers.

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