Mark Drakeford AM, Welsh Labour Leader and First Minister
Mark Drakeford AM, Welsh Labour Leader and First Minister

Mark Drakeford AM delivered his Keir Hardie Lecture in Merthyr Tydfil last night. Below is the full transcript.


Thank you very much for the invitation to give the annual Keir Hardie lecture here in Merthyr this evening.

Particular thanks to Dawn Bowden for helping to make it happen.

I’m going to begin, as I know has become customary, by setting what I have to say in the context of Hardie’s own life and work.

I’m going to talk this evening about nothing less than the future of our country: about the United Kingdom and of Wales: about the way we are governed, and how that has to change.

Before the lecture is over, I plan to set out a minimum set of reforms which, I believe, meet the challenges we face.

The stakes are as high as they could be: the continuation of the United Kingdom is, today, more at risk than at any moment in my political lifetime.  The position of Wales in all this is debated, today, more than ever before.

I want to make the case for an entrenched and extended devolution settlement, in which a self-determined and successful Wales chooses to remain in a decentralised and successful United Kingdom, itself a positive and leading member in a reformed and successful European Union.

I want to begin with the last word in that sentence – Union.

Keir Hardie was, first and foremost, a trade unionist as will be so many people in this room tonight.

To me, the arguments which led me to join a trade union when I was 17 and working in the health service are the same reasons why I believe that Wales is best off in the Unions of the UK and the EU.

Throughout his life Hardie made the case for unionism in terms that resonate to this day.

Trade Unions, he said were founded on a set of principles:

The first principle was that of unity, because through unity comes strength.

A second principle is that of self determination: it is the union members who determine their own destiny.

And a third principle was solidarity.  The basic aspirations and desires of the workers throughout the world, Hardie said, are the same.  Workers are workers the world over.  Solidarity exists not simply locally, but internationally.  International solidarity was at the core of his view of the world.  In August 1914, as the First World War approached, he made one of his most famous speeches in Trafalgar Square:

‘German workmen have no quarrel with their French comrades.  The French worker has no quarrel with his Austrian comrades.  If that be so, why are we on the verge of the greatest calamity Europe has ever seen?’

And through unity, self-determination and solidarity, the core purposes of trade unionist were to be advanced through collective action, expressed through the actions of democratically elected, socialist governments: the causes of emancipation and equality.  Economic, social, political and personal emancipation, and a society where

Now, all of that adds up, to me, for the case for the United Kingdom: the case that tells us that unity and solidarity are the means by which the interests of the many, as we would say today, can be advanced.

Now the false trail of nationalism takes us in exactly the opposite direction: one that pits working people against each other, based on the accident of geography, rather than drawing them together in a common cause.

Of course there are struggles which need to be fought. But the struggle is not between working people in Merthyr and Middlesbrough, but between the powerful and privileged and those who are held back in a society marred by deep and deliberate inequality.

And that struggle is fatally undermined when it is diverted and diluted into the divisive dogmas of nationalism.

Now, there are those who have attempted to claim Hardie for their separatist agenda.  But Home Rule, as he called it, was not an appeal to nationalism, at all, as his own history demonstrates.

As a Scot, he was a vice president of the Scottish Home Rule Association.

As the Labour, Radical and Home Rule Member of Parliament for West Ham, he was an advocate of municipal socialism, with local ownership of transport, utilities and municipal trading.

As the Member of Parliament for Merthyr Boroughs, he again argued for the importance of local allegiance, of the sense of belonging, but, crucially, as the ingredients in the creation of class consciousness and common purpose – self-determination as the means to the end of equality and justice, rather than an end in itself.

And, of course, Home Rule All Round was a policy with a resonance far beyond the nascent Labour Party.  During Kier Hardie’s first term as MP for Merthyr boroughs, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill appeared together, on 21 October 1904 at the Pavilion in Caernarfon to speak in favour of the same proposition.  The local newspaper reported that, ‘at the end of the meeting they were both carried shoulder high all the way to Plas y Bryn, Bontnewydd, where they were staying’.

[I should point out, to anyone moved to the same degree this evening that I will be staying in Cardiff]

So, the reforms I want to outline this evening, are based on those twin aspects of Keir Hardie’s enduring legacy: his untiring advocacy of the benefits of unionism, and his clear sense that unity between people in pursuit of common interests was strengthened, not undermined, by powerful local self-determination.

The new settlement I want to set out is not about tweaks to individual devolution settlements and certainly not about defending the status quo.

It is about a set of constitutional principles which will entrench and extend self-determination for people in Wales, while remaining true to our progressive, internationalist values.

A set of principles which reinforce the control which people in Wales exercise over our own affairs, while guaranteeing continued access to the advantages which accrue to Wales when we chose to act with others at a UK level.

My starting point is this: that the United Kingdom today is best, indeed necessarily, a multi-national state, in which its four constituent parts come together in voluntary association.

Now, that principle may sound entirely obvious to members of this audience, but it is certainly not to be taken for granted elsewhere.  The grace-and-favour model of devolution is alive and well in the present Conservative Government: the belief that a Parliament in Scotland and a National Assembly in Wales have somehow been gifts from a beneficent centre and gifts which could be taken back at any time, too.

This view of devolution finds its most regular expression in the notion of ‘Parliamentary sovereignty’: the assertion that there is a hierarchy of political authority in the United Kingdom, in which Westminster remains paramount and all other democratic forums are subsidiary to it.

Twenty years into devolution, I don’t believe that this model can provide a basis for the future.

Instead, we must understand sovereignty as dispersed between the constituent parts of the UK. Responsibility and political authority remains at the national level, unless and until it is pooled back, at the UK level for particular purposes.  And, of course, I believe that such purposes exist because of the capacity which exists through pooled purposes for sharing risks and rewards in ways which promote social justice and equality.

How, then, to entrench this voluntary, dispersed model of sovereignty?  Well, I don’t think it is difficult.  It involves an explicit, legal recognition that, in our case, the National Assembly is a permanent feature of the UK’s democratic architecture.

That the only way in which the devolved institutions of the UK could be abolished should be through the consent of those legislatures and their electorates.

What was done by referendum, should only be undone by referendum.

At the same time, entrenchment requires a change to what is called the Sewell Convention.  The Convention is the current means by which  the UK Government can legislate in areas devolved to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and can do so even when the devolved bodies have expressly refused to provide consent for that to happen.

Sewell says that the UK Parliament will ‘not normally’ act in this way.

But there is no guarantee that this will not happen, and indeed it already has.

The Convention has no rules, it has no agreed procedures.  The UK Government is under no obligation to report or explain on how it has come to a conclusion that ‘normal’ circumstances apply. It is certainly not open to effective challenge – not simply by devolved institutions but by the UK Parliament either.

It is an entirely arbitrary power, rooted in the colonial model of sovereignty.

I don’t believe that Sewell is compatible with the sort of entrenched, devolved United Kingdom which will be fit for the future.

In the immediate future, it needs to be reformed, so that its operation is codified and open to challenge.  Thereafter, it ought to be replaced by a constitutional settlement in which the powers and responsibilities retained at the devolved level are exercised exclusively at that level, other than by the consent of the legislatures involved.

And, as I have said already, I believe that there will be occasions and purposes where those legislatures will want to act in that way.

They will do so, however, more readily and purposefully, if the relationship between the different legislatures and governments is one based on parity of participation and respect.

The current ad hoc arrangements are simply not good enough to bear the weight of a post-Brexit Britain.  They don’t work satisfactorily now, and they certainly will not then.

Brexit itself has spawned a new and expanding set of Ministerial forums in which the component parts of the UK come together for different purposes.  But it remains entirely ad hoc and, in so far as they rely on the vagaries of individual Ministerial predilections, ad hominem too.

We need a fundamental reform.  There should be an agreed and predictable set of arrangements for inter-governmental business.  These arrangements should be based on parity of participation.  They should be able to meet anywhere in the United Kingdom.  They should be supported by an independent secretariat. Any administration should have the ability to place items for discussion. There has to be a system for dispute avoidance and resolution which is independent of any one member.

And, in the theme of entrenchment which I have focused upon this evening, these arrangements need to be put into statue, so that the foundation of the system lies in public law, with the greater transparency, accountability and better public understanding which will result, as will the reinforcement of the culture of mutual respect and parity of esteem on which the system will rest.

Now, there are many other issues discussed in the paper which the Welsh Government has published today and which I don’t have time to discuss this evening, including some very big issues such as funding flows in a reformed UK, the future role of a reformed House of Lords, the future exercise of powers over crime and justice in Wales and the case for a formal federal structure set out in a wider written constitution for the UK.

Let me end by drawing attention to the very final point in the paper, which places everything it has to say, and indeed what I have said this evening, in the context of an urgently needed conversation with the public.  Our proposals are just that – proposals for discussion and debate.  That debate needs to go far beyond the Welsh Government and beyond the political classes.

At the moment it seems fashionable to call for a citizens’ assembly on a whole range of issues.  My predecessor, Carwyn Jones, called for a constitutional convention at the start of this decade, and we would all be a long way further down this track had his advice been heeded.  More than ever, we need a debate about the future of the United Kingdom and Wales’ place within it.

As socialists and trades unionists, we start with a set of principles and values which guide us in this debate. Socialism is, of course, about the redistribution of income and wealth, but it is even more fundamentally about the redistribution of power.

The language used by Keir Hardie was infused with emancipation: economic, social, political and international.

But, our emancipation is not one based on framing other nations as the enemy: whether that be by Boris Johnson’s attempt to demonise the European Union, or Plaid Cymru’s attempt to blame the English for all our present discontents.

Instead, to return to my opening, we know that unity and solidarity are best enriched by local affiliations, rather than supplanted by them.

We can be fiercely Welsh, without that calcifying or congealing into a narrow hostility to others.

We can entrench the redistribution of power which is at the heart of devolution but we can best exercise that power in the pursuit of social justice through a partnership with a Labour Government at Westminster determined to be a redistributive engine in economic, social and environmental justice.

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