“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…” For those in Wales’ political parties, fighting an election in extraordinary times, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s epigram may be as good a summary as any of the outcome of our recent General Election. At the end of it all, we have another Labour government, able to govern on its own; despite the Labour Party’s mixed fortunes in England, it has been confirmed as the dominant force in Welsh politics, in a way that few predicted before the votes were counted.
What does that mean for Wales’ relationship with Europe? There appear to be a number of pointers to what we can expect as the new Senedd starts work.
First, Europe was not an election issue. The main progressive parties – Labour, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats – all advocated closer links with Europe in their manifestos, but the campaign showed there was no appetite for a rerun of the Brexit debate; the parties – understandably – were focused on the economic challenges of the next few years as Wales emerges from pandemic and faces a new and massive set of economic challenges.
Second, the parties of the populist Right – Abolish, Reform, UKIP – were soundly defeated. It had been widely predicted that Abolish might pick up one or two list seats; they came nowhere close. The new Senedd is dominated by parties on the progressive wing of politics – by politicians who, by and large, opposed Brexit and will be uncomfortable with its consequences.
One reason Labour did well was that much of the 2016 UKIP vote went back to Labour – in contrast to what appears to have happened in much of England. It means that Welsh Labour may be wary of adopting explicitly pro-European positions and language in Government.
On the other hand, Mark Drakeford has frequently talked about the need for Wales to be open and outward-looking, and the proposed replacement for Erasmus – introduced by a Liberal Democrat Minister on Welsh Labour’s watch – represents an important and concrete achievement. The First Minister has made it clear that EU citizens living in Wales are welcome and an organic part of Welsh society – although political decisions about their status are not in the Welsh Government’s gift. The Welsh Government is unlikely to adopt the kind of aggressive anti-Europe rhetoric that the Westminster Government frequently uses.
Third, and most importantly, the election was a powerful mandate for the Senedd itself, and for devolution more generally. The Abolish the Assembly party with its explicit anti-devolution agenda was wiped out electorally, with its leader something of a laughing stock after his extraordinary performance in the BBC leaders’ debate. That is important for pro-Europeans in Wales because of the organic links between Brexit and devolution, and the way in which Brexit has provided the rationale for Westminster to undermine and circumvent devolution. And this result throws down quite a challenge to the Welsh Conservatives – do they accept that this election has reaffirmed the democratic mandate for self-government in Wales, already established in two referendums, in the face of their Westminster Government’s attempts to undermine it?
And, fourth, the result confirmed something that has been clear for some time now – that the nature of political discourse in Wales is increasingly different from Westminster. Indeed, right across Britain this election vindicated Roger Awan-Scully’s thesis that the UK has not one but four party systems, with a growing divergence across the UK’s four nations.
However as we move out of the pandemic – which has masked the effects of Brexit on the Welsh economy – and into what could be unprecedentedly hard economic times – with the near-certainty of real-terms cuts in funding from Westminster – the real impact of Brexit will be seen in the way it hampers recovery; the millstone that it places around the necks of Welsh business, as well as our creative artists and sportspeople.
The case for stronger links with Europe will depend on the extent to which the economic, social and cultural impacts of Brexit are understood and perceived as such: whether people understand that Brexit is a factor in inhibiting recovery and denying opportunity. But it will depend, too, on the extent to which Welsh civil society – more innately progressive and open to internationalist arguments than its counterparts in England – is persuaded of the need at least to pursue greater alignment – economic and otherwise – with Europe, and to press the case for significant change when the Trade and Co-operation Agreement is renegotiated in 2025.
Brexit will not go away. It will continue to stalk Wales’ economy and political future. But the nature of the debate is likely to be fundamentally different in the Sixth Senedd, and Wales’ pro-Europeans will need to find a style of advocacy and approach that reflects this.