Communities and Culture, Devolution and Constitution

Europe, Brexit and Welfare: Why minority nationalist parties’ views matter

Voting concept - Ballot box painted into national flag colors - United Kingdom of Great Britain
Voting concept - Ballot box painted into national flag colors - United Kingdom of Great Britain

Measures governments take to improve people’s social well-being, from health care and education to housing and social benefits, are always hot topics in UK elections and are likely be top of voters’ agendas as they go to the polls in just over three weeks.  But how do minority nationalist parties use supranational institutions such as the European Union and changes to governance structures brought about by devolution to press for change in social policy? Here Professor Paul Chaney examines the use language in manifestos, speeches and policy documents in recent Welsh and Scottish elections, and the Brexit referendum, to explore the experience of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). He also explores how pressure for welfare change is framed using key tropes including nation-building, extending social protection and resistance to central government programmes.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the SNP saw international organisations like the EU, then the European Economic Community, as offering a stable environment for small countries in a potentially hostile world. This required something of a balancing act, with the Party simultaneously arguing for national autonomy and European integration.

Over time both MNPs changed their position on Europe. This was particularly striking in the Scottish case. Initially, the SNP exhibited hostility to the European Economic Community / European Union because of fears that integration may undermine its goal of independence.  For example as an extract from the Scottish National Party Scotland’s Future publication from 1974 shows: ‘Scotland has suffered too much already from centralisation in Britain. Centralisation Common Market style could be a death blow to our very existence as a nation’. Later the Party gave a commitment to withdraw an independent Scotland from the EEC. Today membership of the EU is a cornerstone of its self-government policy.

In contrast, since 1925 Plaid Cymru has seen Wales as a European nation. Notably, in the 1980s European integration was embraced as a means to secure greater autonomy. Ultimately this was given expression in the phrase ‘full national status for Wales in Europe’, as can be seen in Plaid Cymru’s 1990 publication An Independent Wales – The Future Beyond. Thus, Plaid’s vision was one where Westminster’s sovereignty declined as powers were simultaneously transferred to Wales and a second representative body of the EU representing regions and ‘historic nations’.

Both parties repeatedly offer a European rationale and/or comparison to support their proposals to extend and improve social policy. Examples include, in Scotland ‘our health service could and should match the best in Europe’ (extract from SNP 2003 election Manifesto: The Complete Case For A Better Scotland) and, ‘poor leadership since the onset of devolution ha[s] left us with a poorly structured service, delivering far poorer health outcomes than in comparable parts of Europe’ (Plaid Cymru, 2016: 47).

Analysis of Plaid Cymru’s 2016 publication shows how Europe is also used to pressure for progressive, social welfare. For example, ‘social Europe has been good for Wales. EU social policies have helped achieve more equality of opportunity, better protection for workers… we will propose a special agreement between the European Commission and the Welsh Government to ensure that Wales can opt in [to the Social Chapter – the EU law that amongst other things sets out workers’ rights] and remain covered’.

The findings also show how countries’ pooling of risk in the EU is attractive to the parties’ welfare plans. Both Plaid and the SNP repeatedly refer to the use of EU economic aid to fund their social programmes. For example, ‘We will use the European Social Fund to train young people and people seeking to re-enter the workforce to become childcare workers and to set up their own childcare businesses’.

In addition, their language shows how they use European Union to further ‘nation-building’ (or, promoting institutions and culture to underpin ideas about a confident independent Wales and Scotland).

Allied to this the MNPs use Europe to pressure for greater control of welfare and resistance to Westminster policies. For example the Plaid Cymru 1999 Manifesto said: ‘We will demand that European funding comes directly to the National Assembly and not to the Exchequer in Westminster’.

The MNPs’ pre-Brexit discourse on the EU underlines the parties’ view that Wales’ and Scotland’s continued membership of the EU is attractive because of solidarity, and the pooling of risk and protection.

Notably, in this context the Plaid Cymru discourse uses the term ‘flexicurity’ to capture such sentiments. For example, ‘cohesion at the local level and diversity writ large are in this sense Europe’s biggest strengths: the EU is flexicurity for a continent of small nations, and for their citizens; a safety valve against the fluctuations of the market, pooling risk without blunting the entrepreneurial imperative’.

The Party also highlights the financial benefits of the welfare safety net provided by the EU. It called last year’s Leave vote a ‘hammer blow to Wales economically’, warning ‘the poorest will pay the price’, adding that Brexit will have ‘profound consequences for the future of the health service right across the UK’.

In a similar vein the SNP stated: ‘the EU guarantees co-rights and social protection… I genuinely fear that a UK working outside the single [European] market will seek economic competitiveness through deregulation and a race to the bottom’.

Both parties underline the role of the EU as a bulwark against unwelcome Westminster policies. Plaid highlights central government’s failure to tackle ‘issues of class and inequality’. And strikingly, they both emphasise how the ‘leave’ vote has renewed pressure to seek Scottish and Welsh independence within the European Union.  At a specially convened post-referendum conference Plaid delegates voted overwhelmingly to reaffirm the party’s commitment to an independent Wales in Europe. Whilst the SNP was swift to signal its intention to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Implicit in this is the idea that an independent Scotland and Wales within the EU will have autonomy over welfare, as Plaid stated ‘it is clear that the UK cannot continue in its current form… On this dark and uncertain [post-referendum vote] morning for our country, people can rest assured that… We are determined to do everything we can in order to empower our national institution [the National Assembly for Wales] and protect our communities’.

In both cases, the goal is a progressive European vision of welfare.

Plaid’s discourse asserts ‘neither will we let go of the aspiration of a social Europe’, while in the case of Scotland, reference is made to ‘explor[ing] options for protecting Scotland’s relationship with the EU, Scotland’s place in the single market and the social, employment and economic benefits that come from that’.

The significance of these findings lies in better understanding how, as key examples of minority nationalist parties, both Plaid and the SNP use devolution, the EU and Brexit to press for change in social welfare. This is because it determines the type of health care, housing, education, and social benefits that are available to all of us.

And this matters. Both parties have held government office – and, with the prospect of significant further change in the way both countries are governed – it is a subject that affects everyone.

In short, it decides the type of society we live in and the values we choose to support at the ballot box.

The full paper – ‘Governance transitions’ and minority nationalist parties’ pressure for welfare state change:  Evidence from Welsh and Scottish elections – and the UK’s ‘Brexit’ referendum, Global Social Policy – can be found here.

This post represents the views of the author and neither those of the Welsh Brexit blog, nor Cardiff University.

Paul Chaney is Professor of Policy and Politics, School of Social Sciences, and Co-Director of the Wales Institute of Social Economic Research and Data (WISERD). He has written and edited more than a hundred books, papers and reports on equality, human rights, social and public policy, legislative studies, political representation and territorial politics. He has acted as an external advisor to government, including: as a member of the UK Government Department of Trade and Industry, Equality and Human Rights Commission Task Force & Steering Group. He was also Advisor to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and the Section 75 Equality and Human Rights Review.

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