Wales, sleepwalking to independence?

Lee Waters examines the consequences for Wales of Scottish independence

Independence is a fringe issue in Wales. Just 12% of Welsh voters support it, and that figure has been stubbornly consistent. But it is far from implausible that within a decade Wales could find itself standing alone, not through any conviction that independence is the best bet, but because the UK has left us.

Let’s consider what could happen.

A strong showing by UKIP in the Euro elections will be seized upon by skittish Conservative MPs to put pressure on David Cameron to harden his line on pulling Britain out of the EU.  That would play into the hands of the Scottish Yes campaign.














The latest YouGov poll shows that in an In/Out referendum 48% of Scottish voters would opt to stay in, compared to 37% in England. A bellicose response by Conservative backbenchers would allow the SNP to warn that English Tories (Boo! Hiss!) would cut the Scots off from Europe.  Deftly handled that is surely worth a few more percentage points in the polls.

The Yes campaign already has the momentum, and within the No campaign, having already deployed its major arguments against independence, a quiet sense of panic is beginning to set in.

A vote for Scottish independence on September 18th is not only possible, it looks increasingly plausible.

A narrow Yes vote would see a union forged in 1707 ruptured. A vote to leave the UK would be just the beginning of a lengthy negotiation on the terms of Scotland’s withdrawal.  Thorny issues like the future of the nuclear submarine base and the currency won’t be easy to resolve. In the event that Scotland opts to leave it would be wise of Whitehall to be magnanimous, but Unionists’ instincts are to make the nationalists stew in their rhetorical juices. It could well get ugly.

So where would that leave Wales?

Unsettled, for a start. And a bad tempered ending of the Union would especially unnerve the Welsh ruling class.  Eager to please, they have been very polite in making their claims for consideration.  But a resigned sense of powerlessness has solidified in their minds over the last year as it has become clearer that the reasoned cases made by endless committees of enquiry for more powers and more money have had little effect.

The most significant example is the bid for reform of the Barnett formula.  An expert Commission led by respected economist Gerald Holtham, pointed out that if Wales were treated on the same basis as an English region it would get some £300 Million more a year. Unfortunately for Wales scrapping the Barnett Formula would see the Scots lose £4 billion a year. Such is Wales’ lack of leverage that the Treasury didn’t even feel the need to dispute the analysis, it simply ignored it.

As part of their case that the UK is ‘better together’ the unionist parties have pledged to keep the Barnett Formula in place. It would seem that offending the Welsh is a small price to pay for placating the Scots.  Wales, Gerald Holtham has concluded, is to be treated as ‘the runt of the litter’: “like the youngest child of a poor family that gets only hand-me-down clothes, whether appropriate or not in style or size.”

These are significant statements as they signify the Welsh political elites beginning to give up hope that the union is responsive to its, modest, demands. “The United Kingdom is not a ‘sharing union’. It is rather a realpolitik union. Those with the loudest voice and a credible threat of secession, get to have most influence on how resources are allocated”,says Prof Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University’s Welsh Governance Centre.

So that begs the question, would Wales fare any better if Scotland were to leave the UK? It is possible that Whitehall will feel that it was unfortunate to lose one bit of the Union and they won’t be careless enough to lose another. But it seems unlikely. England’s relative size will have jumped from 85% of the UK, to nearly 92% of the rump state, and a resurgent England, and its future in Europe, is therefore likely to command the greater attention of the centre.

If Scotland were to vote to leave the UK, a bundle of pro-EU votes in an In/Out EU referendum would leave with them. If the polls are correct Wales’ wish to remain in the EU would be overwhelmed by England’s wish to leave.  Not only would that create a clash of values but it would create deep unease about Wales’ economic wellbeing.

The little regional policy there is within the UK is driven from Brussels and not London.  If the EU aid tap was turned off, with nothing equivalent in its place, the concern that economic policy is pre-occupied with keeping the golden eggs coming from south east of England geese would fester further.

But if this hypothetical chain of events is set off it will be politics that will really shift things. Crudely put, Welsh Labour’s conversion to devolution in the early 90s was powered by a calculation that it was the only way the party could be sure of exercising power in Wales. That sense of powerlessness could again shift thinking on the left in Wales.

A union dominated by a larger neighbour, chiefly presided over by right of centre Governments, and standing outside the EU, is a very different proposition from the current Union eulogised by unionist politicians in Wales.

At the time of writing a No vote in Scotland still seems the most likely, though with the lead narrowing it may be a slim victory that would settle little.  But the scenario I’ve set out could well come about, with profound and far-reaching consequences for Wales.  And it’s about time the Welsh started facing up to the fact that the ground beneath is moving.

Lee Waters is Director of the IWA. To read the full version of this article join IWA to receive the 52nd issue of The Welsh Agenda, or buy the magazine here:

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