Aneurin Bevan killed my sheep: Labour and Welsh independence

The prospect of Welsh independence demonstrates how the dissolution of Britain and its rebuilding as a confederation can provide an opportunity for socialist change.

In October 1944, Aneurin Bevan declared: “I do not know the difference between a Welsh sheep, a Westmorland sheep and a Scottish sheep”. Bevan didn’t know the difference? I can tell. As someone who has worked on farms both sides of the England-Wales border, let me tell you that there are many differences. Differences that, in a crisis, can get them killed.

Bevan was, of course, making a wider point. His consideration was always the means of seizing power and creating a fairer state for everyone in every area, regardless of the geography of these islands. I also doubt he would have claimed to have had any farming knowledge. And yet, he was wrong. His statement set a centralizing mode for the Labour movement that has taken missteps and, in Scotland, has been shown to force it to falter. Are the needs of workers in Essex the same as the needs of workers in west Wales? Are the needs of workers in London the same as the needs of workers on the Isle of Skye? No. Clearly. If they were, there wouldn’t be such a thing as ‘London weighting’ to their wages. The sheep have already differed, Bevan. And it’s more than that: every evaluation of the worker and their rights must also evaluate how they fit into the community, how the community benefits or suffers from the wider structural model in which that community exists, and how representative that wider system is. There is a need for focus and, in the twenty-first century, slaughtering the sacred cow of the twentieth. The cow’s name is Aneurin Britain.

Inequality and the democratic deficit

Statistics show that the greatest wealth inequality in any unitary state in Europe is that between London and West Wales. Notice the term ‘unitary state’ – the UK is not a country; however much Tory Leadership hopefuls have snorted on about ‘Bringing the country together’, they’re using a nineteenth-century term for a twentieth-century state; never let it be said that the Tories were ahead of the times. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is just under 100 years old and, though it showed some remarkable vigour in its eighties and nineties, it is dying. This is, in large part, because it is so unequal.

Two simple examples: HS2 and transport spending per head. Even though HS2 will take businesses and employment away from Wales, it is classified as an ‘England and Wales’ investment, so Welsh taxes pay for it and the Welsh Government gets no Barnett Consequential from it (whereas the Northern Irish & Scottish Governments do). In transport spending per head, London gets £2,604 while Wales – Wales, one of only two countries in the entire EU to not have any electrified railways – gets £94 per head. London, of course, has a diverse mix of classes and people that socialists in Wales stand in solidarity with, but it isn’t most in need of public transport.

Britain is not only unequal in monetary terms but unequal in democratic representation. Gary Younge wrote recently in the Guardian​:

Government and culture are dominated by the same narrow section of the population.​ It’s no way to run a country… The people who have everything also run everything… Since the war Britain has come to think of itself as far more meritocratic. The current situation gives the lie to that illusion.

And he’s absolutely right – as will be clear to anyone who grew up poor. It’s clear when we look at who owns which newspaper; who is born to be in the House of Lords; whose cousin gets NHS England contracts; who are the people related to the Queen who have been in the running to be the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party. It’s clear when the same people who hold top positions on editorial boards of certain magazines are also considered the most fitting people to interview/interrogate our future leaders on the British Broadcasting Corporation – especially when you know that they’ll all be drinking an expensive something together for the next few years, no matter the outcome. When Wales has voted for socialism for 100 years but hasn’t had socialism in a third of that time, there is something very wrong.

The country is not only run by a self-serving clique, it is kept running by the institutions and the structures it has built in their name and built around them. When Britain’s democracy is built on a monarchy, what do we expect? If the primary model is aristocratic nepotism, what else do we expect from the models built after it? Even our civil service – after all, what is the longest serving civil servant awarded when they retire? A Lordship. But more than that, when ‘there are only two schools and only two universities’ and you don’t go to either of them, what chance do you really have of entering the British Establishment? An establishment that would rather make a racist buffoon of its own into prime minister than elect a moderate centre-left leader who wants to institute slightly more redistributive policies. As Raymond Williams said, ‘It is hardly necessary to argue that this does not sound like the language and procedures of modern electoral democracy1’.

Tell me, is it a truly modern, electoral democracy when one Parliament in another country can snap away the existence of other parliaments? No, clearly, and yet within the current UK setup, the Westminster Executive can shut down the Northern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh parliaments – within a week, should it so wish. Should the EU Withdrawal Bill become law on October 31st, the Henry VIII powers would enable that Executive to do even more, even quicker. Not only is the current setup antithetical to socialism, it’s antithetical to any distribution of democratic consent. As I write, the Tories in Westminster are making moves to cut the Devolved Governments budgets and beef up the Scottish Office, the Wales Office, and the Northern Irish Office budgets in London; centralizing power once again.

Radical socialism

Is it not the job of socialism to analyse and radically alter the structures we see as immoral, unfit, or quite simply antithetical to socialism? When ‘Britain is run by a self-serving clique’, the British Establishment must be broken down for socialism to even have a level playing field. The IndyScot and IndyWales movements are an opportunity to dismantle that establishment (hence the hashtag #DissolvetheUnion, which could easily be #DismantleTheEstablishment).

If your socialism doesn’t include a change from monarchy then I don’t consider you socialist enough. If you’re fine with the structural status quo, you won’t like what I have to say but I’ll say it anyway: both indyScot and indyWales are an opportunity to remove the chokehold that monarchy, and its class’s institutions, have on Britain. The dissolution of Britain and its rebuilding as a confederation is the best opportunity for socialist change we have. Every socialist worth their salt should support the Welsh and Scottish independence movements.

There’s a reason that Labour didn’t include reform of the monarchy in their 2017 manifesto: the English Overton Window won’t allow it. Look at England’s voting history. It hardly allows for reform of the Lords or the UK-wide voting system. Yet once Scotland votes for independence? Watch everything change.

My indyWales is an anti-imperialist, anti-monarchy, and radical eco-socialist project. It is a rejuvenation of democratic representation waiting to happen; independence can give us a republic in Wales if we support it and push it to be radical. Our Overton Window in Wales, since 2016, has shifted so far that not only did we hold an event with the Welsh Fabians at Welsh Labour Conference 2019 but we were in the Official Programme, both former First Minister Carwyn Jones and Tonia Antoniazzi MP spoke at it, and I was invited onto BBC Radio Wales to speak about it on the morning after; we have doubled support for indyWales within Welsh Labour (from 20% to 40%) since 2017; and we’re not going to stop. Our particular history in Wales gives us a greater opportunity to be radically socialist and to aid in the dismantling of the imperial project that is the British Establishment.

Wales has had a Labour-led government in Cardiff for twenty years. It has not, unfortunately, become even close to a European socialist model. Some have accused Welsh Labour of solely ‘tinkering at the edges’, yet what is a government to do when they don’t have the levers of control to truly change things? Some even go so far as to say that devolution, itself, is a Gramscian ‘passive revolution’ enacted to stop the rebalancing of the unequal British state. It’s only this year, 2019, that the Welsh Government have gained control of a few tax-varying powers. Note: a few. Over the last nine years, one of the Welsh Government’s most pressing tasks has been to counter the effects of austerity – only having a few tax varying powers means that they may only be able to counter any reductions made by London, in the future.

The Senedd has done some incredible things that have made differences on the ground: the plastic bag charge, presumed organ donation, free prescriptions, free bus travel on weekends, the Future Generations Act, being the first government in the world to declare a Climate Emergency and cancelling the M4 Relief Road because of it. But more than a third of Welsh children still live in poverty, fluctuations in the global financial markets hit our manufacturing jobs first because our wages are so low, and we still don’t have much of a media landscape - which means the poorest here turn to the UK’s right-wing papers promoting the right-wing liars when times are hard.

Anyone who has looked long and hard at the question of indyWales knows that it won’t mean a blank slate, it won’t be easy, and there will be a lot of work to be done. Believe it or not, I’m considered a moderate voice within the indyWales movement: living a stone’s throw from the border, I understand the way cross-border services work and that they must be maintained or altered slowly so as to reduce any possible harm. I’m a radical socialist who sees much of Labour’s history as imperialist, but I have worked with those in Labour whom many call ‘centrists’; at the first All Under One Banner Cymru march in Cardiff, I stood on the same platform as Adam Price of Plaid Cymru and Sandra Clubb of Undod; Adam is politically to the right of me whereas Sandra is to the left of me. The indyWales movement being a popular movement means that it has, inevitably, drawn people from every wing of politics. It remains important to note, however, that the movement could and should do better in its approach to both representation and intersectionality - this recent article gives an indication of where improvements could be made. Finally, as a trade unionist friend said to me, the left needs to be involved or the independence movements will shift away from socialism.

In conclusion

There are two great political headwinds blowing at the moment, environmentalism and nationalism. In the recent EU elections, Richard Leonard said ‘The upcoming European election must not become a “false choice” between British and Scottish nationalism’. But he was barking at a ship that had sailed: Brexit is nationalism, Boris Johnson is nationalism, Trump is nationalism, Putin is nationalism; socialists can either choose imperialism and aligning themselves with British nationalism or they can recognize the radical potential of confederalism and of small states working together. Extinction Rebellion’s protests are having an effect and will only continue. Under those two political headwinds, we can deconstruct the imperial powers of old and give socialism a real chance.

During the foot and mouth crisis of 2001, many vets from DEFRA HQ came to Wales. They declared several hundred farms worth of sheep to be infected, you can see the historical infection maps but I will always remember my friends coming to school worried. This year, I’ve chatted to a vet about my brother-in-law’s sheep; I was worried about what I thought might be ulcers indicating disease. They weren’t. All was well. When I pressed further, the vet told me that hill sheep here have naturally resolving ulcers to deal with the higher acid content of hill grazing; another pint later and they told me how DEFRA HQ, in 2001, condemned thousands of sheep in Wales to an unnecessary death, because they didn’t know that our hill sheep naturally have ulcers. Aneurin Bevan was not only wrong but his centralization of power in London killed many sheep. By insisting that all workers over these islands are the same, he damned us to live on London’s periphery. Centralization of power and the levers of power leave those of us living in the peripheries to die – if a leader is a shepherd, Aneurin Bevan killed my sheep. And Westminster will continue to, unless socialists of all stripes support an independent Wales.

  1. See ‘Democracy and Parliament’, Marxism Today, June 1982 


Ben Gwalchmai (@BenGwalchmai)

Ben Gwalchmai is a maker, worker, and writer [Purefinder (2013), Know your Place (2017), swimming in locks//kites over marches (forthcoming 2019)] and the co-founder of Labour4indyWales.