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Wales for Europe: Towards a Partnership of Equals Liz Saville Roberts

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Liz Saville-Roberts
Speech by Liz Saville Roberts MP on Monday 8th October 2018
Pierhead, Cardiff


A shortened version of this speech was was originally posted on Click on Wales.

I asked for a comedy walk-on song but was advised against it on the grounds of aesthetics.

Actually, come to think of it, when it comes to Brexit the PM may have better captured the mood of the moment if she came on to the Hokey Cokey, possibly arm-in-arm, in perfect step with Jeremy Corbyn

In all seriousness, thank you for inviting me today. And thank you Wales for Europe, whose supporters and members are at the front line of challenging the chaotic Brexit blueprint with which the Government are currently intent on designing our future.

It is only because of your work, your support and your efforts that I am able to stand up in Parliament to call out the Prime Minister – and for that matter the Opposition Front Bench – on the catastrophe Brexit will bring for our nation.

An answerless, clueless Westminster continues to fail to offer any solutions to the questions our nation faces.

Both Westminster parties remain divided, distracted and disposed to deliver a Brexit that will see Welsh jobs and wages lost.

In fact, there is no better metaphor for the state of our politics than the crumbling palace of Westminster, where I spend half my week. It is currently clad in tarpaulin and seems to be held up by little more than scaffolding, tarpaulins and blu tak.

Exacerbated by Brexit the partnership of nations that make up the United Kingdom looks ever more unequal, unjust, unjustifiable and thus unsustainable.

There are too many issues to discuss in a single speech – so let me confine my comments to three key questions.

Devolution, development and the deal.

The national movement’s greatest achievement thus far is devolution.

It is and remains far from perfect.

The constitutional compromise that sits at the foundations of the United Kingdom continually fails to give clarity and consistency.

But the National Assembly for Wales is the cornerstone in the political arch through which we walk towards the empowerment of our people.

But Brexit has crashed into the fragile architecture of our new build democracy like a rogue JCB, enabling an emboldened Westminster to re-centralise some of the gains made over the last twenty years.

Until recently the direction of devolution was downwards sloping – from Westminster to Wales.

From primary law-making powers to – albeit limited – tax tools, Wales was gaining the means to create unique Welsh solutions to our unique Welsh problems.

The inversion of that direction of travel came crashing through our constitutional compromise post-referendum.

There is something Sisyphean about being a pro-devolution politician.

As you know, the great Greek myth of Sisyphus is the story of a man condemned to repeat forever the same task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again.

I feel condemned to hurling Wales Bill-shaped boulders up the Westminster mountain, only to see them thrown – rather than roll – back down again, with distant peals of Olympian laughter mocking our plebeian asperity to aspire for anything else. 

The most dramatic degradation of devolution came in the shape of the European Union Withdrawal Bill – now Withdrawal Act.

The passage of the flagship Brexit legislation of the Westminster administration marked a dark day in devolution.

I recognise that across almost all political parties there is a growing pro-remain sentiment.

But, for a moment, you will have to excuse the party-political approach – as the Intergovernmental Agreement which the Labour Welsh Government signed with the Tories in Westminster is one of the greatest tragedies to befall Welsh democracy.

The Intergovernmental Agreement – or Agreement as I will now refer to it to save six syllables– was the deal done to break the stalemate on the devolution clauses of the Withdrawal Bill.

Until April this year, the two sitting devolved administrations had worked in lock-step to oppose the power grab – as it was correctly termed – written into this legislation.

In May, Labour in Wales capitulated, buckling to Westminster’s demands and leaving the Scottish Government alone on the field to fight the battle against the power grab.

Now at the best of times, constitutional questions can seem technical and boring – dry to the point of arid.

But it is constitutional questions that define almost all other political decisions – they are the fundamental questions of power.

Who legitimately can tell others what to do.

In simple terms, the Welsh constitution works as follows – Westminster created a list of issues over which it would retain power.

Anything not on that list is in the gift of our National Assembly for Wales to decide and legislate on.

As you can imagine, Westminster created a rather long list of what they would continue to control. 146 pages worth and over 200 policy areas, in fact.

But the principle is simple enough – issues like defence, foreign affairs and space exploration remain the preserve of Westminster and Whitehall. Whilst issues like transport, agriculture and health, which are not on the list, are run by Cardiff.

Simple enough – or at least it is in the abstract.

The issue came when Westminster argued that list needed to be amended in light of Brexit.

In effect, the crux of the quarrel was around who would be responsible for 26 or so policy areas which were either in part or wholly exercised at an EU level.

For example, rules around agriculture support, food labelling and public procurement were all partly decided by the European Union.

Once we leave the European Union, we will – in theory – be able to make those rules in the UK. The question is, who makes those rules.

Westminster claimed that for the UK single market to function, these decisions must be made in London and imposed across the whole of the UK – regardless of whether they work for Wales or not.

Whereas we argued that Westminster simply deciding on behalf of Wales would lead to rules which failed to recognise the unique nuances of Welsh issues.

Let me be clear, it was not and never has been that we wanted to disengage with Westminster. It is simply that diktats from London, rather than a collaborative decision making, will not lead to good policymaking.

It means Westminster, not Wales, will decide the funding our famers will get. Will they support the barley barons of southern England or the hill farmers of Wales? I can tell you who my money is on.

It means that when Westminster wants to pry open the oyster shell of the NHS for private companies, so they can conclude the trade deals they so desperately seek, Wales will be powerless to save a pearl of the highest social value.

The promise that Wales would get more powers as a result of Brexit is befitting of the side of a big red bus. And Labour are complicit in perpetuating this myth.

There are so many more issues relating to the constitutional inequality being generated by Brexit that I could talk about – the sunset clause, the open-ended provisions that will allow Westminster to grab even more policy areas and the lack of shared parliamentary process for co-decision making, to name but three.

But time means we must move on – although the issue I will highlight next is interlaced.

The development of the Welsh economy has been at best lacklustre.

We know, however, that any Conservative government will continue to underfund Wales in terms of infrastructure investment and financial redress for chronic poverty. We know it on the simple grounds of knowing that that is what they’ve always done.

Worse still is that the principle of challenging inequality across the UK will cease the moment we leave the EU.

It was the EU’s vision for addressing geographical inequality and subsidiarity which ensured funding and the decisions of how that funding should be spent were at the core of our economic strategy.

There is no way to sugar coat this – our poverty and a weak economy mean Wales is a net beneficiary when it comes to EU funding.

Wales’s net benefit from the EU budget sits at around £79 per head.

Or to put it another way, Wales receives £245 million more from the European Union than it pays in.

This is money not generated by trade, but cold-hard cash.

Pennies and pounds given to Wales by Europe to invest in universities, industry and infrastructure to help redress the economic imbalance across the European Union. 

That money may have been invested ineffectively, even unwisely in some instances.

But that was not the fault of Europe.

That was the fault of the Welsh Government, who under that patchwork of constitutional conventions that I have just described was responsible for the dispersion of those funds.

While Westminster still funds London at a greater rate per head than Wales, European aspirations of equality ensure Wales gets its fair share from the latter Union.

And yet, we will now be forced to lift up our eyes unto Westminster from whence comes our financial salvation post-Brexit, allegedly.

For Wales, Brexit is not only a matter of biting the hand that feeds you, but it is also feeding the hand that holds you down.

And so what solution post-Brexit is on offer for addressing regional inequality?

What is Westminster’s solution for equalising the wealth across the British Isles?

How will the poorest parts of western Europe – in west Wales and the Valleys – be economically encouraged to parity with the richest – London?

The answer according to Mrs May – the Shared Prosperity Fund.

What is that? I hear you ask.

Well, we’re all asking that very same question.

This is the little we know so far:

It will be administered by the English Department for Local Government.

And here is the end of what we know.

No figures, no financing and no detail.

Hundreds of millions of pounds in funding for universities and young people, roads and railways, education and employment – gone. And with little or no detail on how it will be replaced.

To compound this chaos, it requires increasing the constitutional control exerted by Westminster over Wales.

No longer will Wales have a say in how the money – if it ever manifests – will be spent.

It seems the English Department for Local Government will be the sole arbiter of how investments are made in our nation.

Under the cover of Brexit, Westminster is not only snatching back our powers but now our money as well.

It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the Labour and the Tories are conspiring to undermine devolution.

Rather than standing up for Wales, Labour bowed down to Westminster and handed a raft of powers back to London.

We warned the compliant Labour party that Westminster would walk all over Wales if you give them the chance. But so weak is Labour that they offer an inch, and now Westminster is taking a mile. 

Not a penny less and a range of new powers were the promises made by the Brexiters. Like so much of what they said, it’s turning out to be lies. Instead, they are trying to turn Wales into a vassal country.

West Wales and the Valleys will lose millions of pounds as Westminster contrives to take back control of powers and money that is rightfully ours.

Direct dividends from our membership of the European Union aside, our economy faces a trauma to trade that risks plunging us into an economic apocalypse that would make the financial crisis look like an oasis of economic stability.

Since the vote to leave the European Union, the Westminster Government has charged forward flying its colonial colours, promising a never-never fantasy of the past filled with free trade deals for the taking, and freedom from the supposed ‘fetters’ of the EU.

It is abundantly clear that these are nothing more than fallacies.

On day one, after the referendum, Plaid Cymru sought to offer a sensible approach. Wales stays within the Single Market and Customs Union so that the economic pillars of our economy remain in place, whilst the original referendum result is respected.

A solution, a plan, a way forward.

A solution that was roundly rejected by Westminster, on the basis that the sunlight uplands of Brexit require us to reject anything with the prefix ‘European’.

Of course, this has proven a catastrophic mistake.

And the land of milk and honey promised by Brexiteers now looks more like a diet of bread and water.

Following the current trajectory according to the Government’s own figures £5 billion would likely be wiped off the Welsh economy.

In a no deal scenario, the damage would be immeasurably worse.

Deal or no deal, billions will be wiped from the economy, jobs lost, and wages cut.

As Leanne Wood warned: these lost jobs will not be for the Telegraph Columnists and their banker friends. Jacob Rees Mogg isn’t going to sully the ancestral Limoges porcelain with reconstituted, chlorinated chicken nuggets the rest of us will be gnawing at.

Like the past decade of austerity, it will not be those whose greed, mendacity and short-sightedness created this chaos who will shoulder the burden.

From Swansea to Prestatyn, from Cardiff to Ceredigion, working people will pay for the establishment temper-tantrum that is the pursuit of an extreme Brexit.

Austerity is already enfeebling our communities, robbing them of the resources that bolster and underpin a civilised, humane and just society.

With billions set to be wiped of the Welsh economy, austerity is only set to be compounded by Brexit. They are inextricably linked.

Be careful what you wish for should, in hindsight, have been the mantra that defines the Westminster government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations.

The Prime Minister has managed to box herself in with irresponsible red lines and political tactics.

Her battle cry of “no deal is better than a bad deal” tried to create some sort of negotiating leverage.

The EU knows that the UK is bluffing. Her negotiating tactic is failing miserably.

The only thing it is doing is strengthening the political hand of the Brexit extremists in the Tory European Research Group and breathing yet for further life into the zombie fears of her party’s psyche.

No deal is now a more than possible scenario by default as opposed to design. 

One sector where there will be huge consequences is food. Without a deal, all food exports to and from the EU will grind to a halt. That is not project-fear I am repeating, it is the Westminster Government’s own analysis.

We will become a de-facto third country and all EU rules, regulations and arbitration mechanisms would cease to apply. Our food products will no longer be EU certified.

Cue border checks at UK ports.

Tailbacks in Holyhead, the main port for our trade with the Republic of Ireland, the UK’s fifth biggest export customer, would be inevitable.

Our food export and import trading relationship with the EU is based on “just in time” systems. The UK is particularly reliant on “just in time” because it is not self-sufficient in food production.

Without a deal, experts predict the system to collapse within five days.

Food would rot in the back of lorries stuck in situ.

Remember the false concerns Brexiteers spread about European regulations on bendy bananas? Thanks to their lies, we’d be lucky to have any bananas.

My esteemed Plaid Cymru parliamentary colleague Jonathan Edwards put it best when he said: A no deal Brexit is the equivalent of jumping from an ill-fated bomber plane, holding nothing but a mothbitten old union jack as a parachute.

And the people of Wales know it.

Working with colleagues in the Assembly, this summer I commissioned a poll looking at Wales’s changing attitudes to Brexit.

The figures show indisputably that Wales now believes that leaving the European Union will have a negative effect on our country.

44% believe that l the effect of Brexit on the UK will be negative opposed to 35% thinking it would be positive.

In greater numbers, people see that Wales will be worse off – with 48% anticipating a negative effect compared with only 28% positive.

Perhaps most stark are the figures relating to No Deal.

The ground-breaking poll showed a clear lead for those who wish to remain in the EU – 48% – compared to those who believe we should leave even if a deal is not reached – 42%.

The people of Wales can see through the pack of lies they were told two years ago. Now they know the truth, people must have a right to reject it – a vote on the final deal, that includes the option to remain in the EU.

It’s time the fanatical Brexiteers swallowed a spoonful of their own medicine and – to coin a phrase – listened to the will of the people

And here comes the good news – I believe a People’s Vote is on the horizon.

The Parliamentary arithmetic means that under the current proposals no deal proposed by the Westminster government will gain the approval of a majority of MPs.

The Brextrimists to her one side, the remainers on the other – and there is the Prime Minister, stuck in the middle with, well, seemingly no one.

Four key events will take place over the next few weeks which will decide whether a People’s Vote materialises.

Tomorrow Parliament will convene and cross-examine the Prime Minister on the last few weeks of Brexit developments.

This will be followed shortly after by a supposedly final attempt at a solution for the British border in Ireland – what is seen to be the final sticking point for some kind of deal.

Then, in a few weeks’ time, the European Union will hold an emergency Brexit summit in an attempt to broker a last-ditch deal.

Finally, this will need to be put to Parliament.

Unless a very large and fluffy rabbit is pulled out of a very small and scruffy hat, Parliament will not approve that deal, if there is a deal reached at all.

Deal or no deal, the only majority that could exist in Parliament is for an amendment to that motion that includes a People’s Vote.

In itself, this is predicated on two further requirements – Labour must fall in-line and likely we would need an extension of Article 50.

Article 50’s extension is, I believe, both possible and plausible.

Labour backing a People’s Vote, is another matter altogether.

On Wednesday evening, my party’s new leader, Adam Price, kicked off his first debate in this position with a call for a People’s Vote.

Sadly, our efforts were rejected by the Tories, UKIP and the Labour Government working together.

The last remaining elected Liberal Democrat in Wales didn’t even bother turning up.

This is the mountain we now must move. And it is not one that I am in a position to do so. The opposition must oppose.

So, if you are a Labour member, I implore you, put pressure on your party. Tweet, email and call your elected representatives. 

I want to welcome them into the fold, as it is only together that we can defend our nation from the untold and unparalleled damage Brexit holds in store.

And so, let me close by repeating the words with which I began.

Brexit had, and still has, very little to do with Europe.

It has everything to do with divisions in the Tory Party. 

It has everything to do with people that had little left to lose kicking out at an establishment that has failed them.

It has everything to do with narcissists like Boris and Farage perpetuating lies in search of self-promotion.

Westminster will seek to airbrush the unique identities of Wales, and Scotland for that matter, yet further – and Wales has far fewer resources to withstand this than SNP-lead Scotland.

Worse still, the ruling Labour Welsh Government are ill-equipped either in ideology or leadership to turn aside assaults on the very existence of our young democracy.

An answerless Westminster continues to fail to offer any solutions to the questions our nation faces.

Exacerbated by Brexit the partnership of nations that make up the United Kingdom looks evermore unequal, unfair and unsustainable.

We are left with is a binary choice between whatever mess is offered up to us by the British political establishment or a better future within the EU – a future favoured by the generation that will have to live in it. 

In 1979 a referendum to establish a Welsh national Parliament was lost.

It took almost twenty years for that mistake to be overturned with another referendum.

Let’s not wait for another generation before we realise this one was a mistake.