Time left to stop Brexit and secure a People’s Vote

Europe is the issue on which to start building Welsh leverage

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Geraint Talfan Davies
This article was originally published in the 23rd April 2019 edition of the Western Mail.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of Wales for Europe and author of Unfinished Business: Journal of an Embattled European.

Did you spot the difference last week? Yes, it was Holy Week, but millions in this country may have thought that the principle blessing was that it became a Brexit-free zone – a hole in the Brexit layer over our political atmosphere.

The rest of the world – that has been crowded out by Brexit for the last three years – suddenly crowded back in.

And a bleak world it was. A passionate young journalist gunned down in Derry – a reminder of the fragility of peace in that province. Hundreds of worshippers killed by terrorists in Sri Lanka on Easter morning.

David Attenborough capturing headlines by reminding us that we have been running down the clock on the existence of the world, not just our membership of the European Union. Meanwhile, those a few generations younger than the sainted Attenborough, were out on the streets of London proclaiming precisely the same climatic and climactic cause.

Only weeks after the first photograph of a black hole, the Extinction Rebellion were telling us – as well as an increasing number of Metropolitan police – in a remarkably good-natured protest, that continued inaction means a different black hole will await us all.   

Amidst present day carnage and the promise of future catastrophe, the fire at Notre Dame and the widespread heartache it created also showed how deeply we can both mourn and cherish the beautiful and the spiritual, even amidst all the world’s other travails.

It takes an effort of will to resist making the fire a metaphor and the reaction to it grist to the Remainer mill – distasteful capital from a tragedy. But it is a fact that this generation knows its European cities better than any of its forebears across the centuries.

I guess I have been to Notre Dame as often, if not more often than I have visited Westminster Abbey. On the 2 February 2013, my wife and I happened upon a joyous service there, marking the church’s 850th anniversary by blessing new bells about to be hung in Notre Dame’s towers.

The named and shining bells lined the nave in that service – Marie, Gabriel, Anne-Genevieve, Denis, Marcel, Stephen, Benedict Joseph, Maurice and Jean Marie. Last week, now in their towers, they would have come crashing down had it not been for the speed and bravery of Parisian firefighters. Notre Dame belongs to us all.

But this week Parliament and normal Brexit service resume. Despite the refreshment of an Easter recess, Westminster will once more attempt to shut out the rest of the world to play the next instalment in the British psycho-drama. It is the fire of Brexit that consumes all our oxygen.

Political parties have been busy choosing candidates for an election that we are not yet certain will happen, at least in this country: elections to the European Parliament. However, the inevitable fall-out at the end of ritualistic talks between the Labour leadership and Mrs May’s government means they almost certainly will.  

Why should they matter? Why should they matter here in Wales? How could Wales make more constructive use of them?

Let’s start with a phenomenon that cannot be denied: Wales total lack of political leverage, especially when compared with Northern Ireland and Scotland.

We must all know that had a tidal lagoon been proposed off the coast of Northern Ireland rather in Swansea Bay, the UK government would have been throwing money at it however marginal the economics. While Wales struggles with a strictly calculated Barnett formula, in Scotland the formula has long been a fig-leaf for a politically-driven largesse that hides in plain sight.

We voted away any possibility of leverage in the devolution referendum 1979 and we did it again, though in less spectacular fashion, in the EU referendum in 2016. Creating leverage for Wales should be an over-riding concern for all parts of the Welsh political system, unionists and nationalists alike.

The European issue in general and the European elections, in particular, provide a useful starting point for a task that we are in danger, once again, of ignoring.

First, the time is right for the Welsh Government to tell the world that it does not have to march in lockstep with the UK’s leadership’s mystifying ambiguities. If the Deputy Leader of the UK Labour Party, Tom Watson, can mark out his own ground on this issue, then surely there is nothing to stop the Welsh Government from doing so. That is, after all, the whole purpose of having a distinct Welsh polity.  

Arguably, the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, has been making some moves in this direction, but they need to be detectable not only by the cognoscenti of Cardiff Bay but also by the Welsh public at large.

This would also be good politics: polls are moving increasingly towards Remain. The latest ComRes poll showing 58% for Remain with only 42% for Leave, the biggest remain lead in three years.

In this situation, surely Welsh Labour cannot go into a European election with the melting fudge of ambiguity sticking to its shoes. Whatever Labour decides at the London end, in Wales it should not only be demanding a new referendum, but making clear why a different outcome in Wales would be unequivocally in the Welsh, and British, interest.

That would put Welsh Labour on the same footing as Plaid Cymru, echoing the commitment to their joint (including the Welsh Liberal Democrats) post-referendum White Paper, Securing Wales’s Future, preventing Labour from being outflanked on the issue and increasing the anti-Brexit effect of the combined vote of the two parties.  

Plaid Cymru and the smaller parties also have a part to play in maximising Welsh leverage, but there are worrying signs that the narcissism of small differences is affecting the Remain cause unnecessarily.

This is barely understandable in British general elections under our first past the post system elections, but it is mystifying in the case of the European elections, held under a more proportional system and when the levers of executive government are not at stake.

Smaller parties, working separately over the decades, have failed totally to crack Britain’s electoral system, in this European election above all others they surely have a duty to work together.

If Plaid, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and the newly-minted  Change UK really believe that Brexit is the over-riding issue facing this country – and that Wales stands to suffer most if Brexit is not stopped – then surely they should be able to work together in Wales, even if their colleagues in England take a different view.

This would have a number of beneficial effects. It would present the Welsh public with simpler and clearer choices, and it would maximise the anti-Brexit vote here in Wales, whatever the result in the rest of the UK. It would also minimise the prospect of a disruptive UKIP/Brexit Party presence in the European Parliament itself, as well as giving the pro-EU parties the experience of working together that would help ensure a successful outcome in a new referendum. A new vote for Europe by the people of Wales, in European elections and in a new referendum, could be the place we start the necessary task of asserting the Welsh interest more robustly.