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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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Reviewed by Robert Griffiths in Labour Briefing, May 2009

This book arrives as Wales is poised for another battle in the long campaign for substantial devolution of powers from Westminster and Whitehall. It is a particularly refreshing contribution to the debate because it is written from a left of centre, pro-devolution standpoint within the labour movement. Such a perspective still retains some novelty, given the traditional hostility to Welsh national aspirations and even to the Welsh language from most sections of the Bevanite and Trotskyist left in the past.

The book's title is taken from the Clear Red Water speech in December 2002 of Rhodri Morgan, First Minister of the National Assembly of Wales and currently head of its Labour–Plaid Cymru coalition Government. Morgan was launching his classic Labour alternative to New Labour's passion for PFI, privatisation, marketisation and the bogus agenda of choice. His muted opposition to Blair's imperialist war-fighting missions took longer to find its voice.

Morgan is no classic left-winger. Although he described himself as a "socialist" in his Swansea speech, he is in reality a middle of the road, pro-EU social democrat who recognises that "clear pink water" doesn't have quite the same ring to it. New Labour's abandonment of social democracy has left him where he always stood, insisting on policies which reduce social inequality, improve public services and extend democratic rights.

Nick Davies and Darren Williams understand the contradictions between these aspirations – shared by socialists as well – and neoliberal capitalist globalisation. Their analysis of the limitations – some of them self-imposed – on Welsh Labour's economic strategy is incisive. They advance alternative economic, social, energy, and environmental policies which challenge the free market interests of the transnational corporations in favour of state intervention, planning, equality and sustainability.

The authors also recognise that primary legislative powers are needed for the National Assembly of Wales to pursue such policies, but they make no substantial proposals to give the Assembly its own fund-raising powers.

This book is full of very useful information about the economy, social structure and policies of Wales. It is weaker on cultural questions including Welsh language rights and the mass media. Nor does the historical chapter deal with the attitude of the labour movement to the national question in Wales during two decisive periods, namely 1918–23 and 1945–51. A more explicitly theoretical approach might have been beneficial, for example when considering the interface between political strategy and the national question.

The clear distinction between the perspective for progressive change, revolution and socialism on the one hand and the democratic case for national self-determination on the other is sometimes blurred. Indeed, the majority of people in Wales consider themselves to belong to "a distinct nation, with a shared history and culture and discrete interests". That is why they should enjoy national autonomy within the British state, and why Wales has an absolute right to separation should its people desire it. These are the principles opposed at every opportunity by Lord Kinnock of Gravy Train and a gaggle of anti-devolution Welsh Labour MPs.

What should the Welsh people do with that autonomy, and should they seek to exercise their right to separation? For socialists, responses to these questions are bound up with the perspectives for achieving state power and establishing socialism. The authors do not advocate independence for Wales (and still less do they entertain Plaid Cymru-style illusions about "self-government within the European Union"). Nor do they spell out how the struggle for greater Welsh autonomy and its use for progressive purposes could strengthen the fight for political power against British state monopoly capitalism.

This weakness is related to another: instead of formulating the alliance needed for political advance in terms of class and social forces, they identify actual and potential allies primarily in party political terms. This overstates the significance of the Labour and Plaid Cymru left – vital though both are to progress in Wales – while underestimating the leading role which needs to be played by the organised working class, not least through a more autonomous, powerful and politically advanced Wales TUC. This approach also marginalises other social forces not affiliated to political parties, but whose involvement in political struggle will also be essential.

It was the big unions in Wales which swung Welsh Labour behind a coalition with Plaid Cymru in 2007. They will play a major role in deciding the Party's leadership after Morgan's retirement and in shaping the policies of the Welsh labour movement. Their members will probably be decisive in the forthcoming referendum for greater powers for the assembly. They will also need to be won to the red-green alliance of Labour, Plaid, the Greens and non-sectarian left parties which Davies and Williams correctly and courageously identify as a key concept for future advance in Wales.

These criticisms aside, they have produced a valuable guidebook for the prospective members of such an alliance.

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