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:

14 thoughts on “Wales, sleepwalking to independence?

  1. “And it’s about time the Welsh started facing up to the fact that the ground beneath is moving”. Many of us have seen this for years Lee, that is why we support political autonomy. It is just a pity that the Labour Party ostriches, who bang on about some rosy ‘Better Together’ future, refuse to acknowledge this. Sadly, I don’t think the Labour’s ideology of British Nationalism could every except the empowerment of Wales. They simply have too much to lose, even if that means playing second fiddle to English free market Eurosceptics.

  2. A correspondent to “The Times” earlier this week made the fascinating but hitherto undiscussed point that if the Scots vote “Yes”, they have effectively shot their bolt. That is to say that in the tortuous negotiations ahead, the UK can be as intransigent as it wishes. This arises because the UK can in effect say “take it or leave it ” to any Scottish position seen as unacceptable, on any aspect of withdrawal terms. Because exactly what is the Scots’ bargaining chip, post referendum? Refuse to go ahead with independence? Collapse of stout Party!

    The knock-on effect on Wales is, as yet, hypothesis in spades, but by the end of 2014 could be beginning to show itself for real.

  3. Lee is right – but possibly for the wrong reasons. There are four scenarios in which Wales drifts towards some form of independence despite a lack of support for the idea in the polls…

    First, Scotland votes ‘Yes’ this year and makes an apparent success of independence. Wales then feels she has to keep up with the Joneses – or rather the MacDonalds. Probability: Low – but possible.

    Second, Scotland votes ‘No’ this year but by such a narrow margin that the issue remains on the agenda until a second referendum votes ‘Yes.’ The intervening period of uncertainty throughout the UK increases the desire for a definite resolution in Wales. Probability: Medium.

    Third, Plaid find their Alex Salmond. Probability: High – given time: remember Dafydd Wigley looked to be coming close in 1999.

    Fourth: the Assembly gradually increases its own powers – no one in London bothering enough to refuse its requests – until we wake up one morning independent in all but name. Probability: Very High – it is in fact already happening.

    Remember that, in every case, no one in England would really care about keeping Wales, especially if Scotland went first and the Union of mainland Britain was already over.

  4. Agree with Jack Rawls. Labour will be the last party to consider constitutional change, as its overall ideology, and its outdated perspective on the evolution of governance and identities, locks it rigidly into a British nationalist / British statist position. In this sense, the practical application of Blair’s devolution project only offered a sweet to soothe the pain. But the ground is shifting and Labour’s complacency will inevitably be challenged. It is interesting to see fault lines now emerging between British nationalisms and Scottish and Welsh nationalisms, and between pro-EU and anti-EU camps. Labour, at least in its public guise, is in limbo on both counts. Hence, fairly understandably, the leaking of some of its support to UKIP.

  5. @ Christopher Drew

    Except that the Edinburgh Agreement includes the provision, inter alia, that the referendum should:

    “deliver a fair test and decisive expression of the views of the people of Scotland and a result that everyone can respect”.

    Subsequent negotiations would be based on respect for the result from both sides and England’s international reputation would be seriously damaged if it did not participate responsibly in an orderly transition to Scottish independence. But in fairness to Westminster, their handling of decolonisation that followed the 2nd World War was conducted in an orderly fashion.

    Lee’s article is timely. The Scottish independence vote is only just over four months away and will be upon us before we know it. Whether Scotland votes Yes or No, there will be substantial changes to the political arrangements within the UK and Wales’ position within the UK will be in the spotlight. I’m not sure that I agree with the view that Wales is sleepwalking to independence but it is the case that Wales’ future is being driven by external events to a position that it has not determined for itself.

    Carwyn Jones’ hope is that Scotland will vote ‘No’, there will then be a constitutional convention and that will entrench Wales and the role of the Senedd as part of a federal constitution. The difficulty with that view is that it does not take account of the role of wealth in exercising power. England is a wealthy country and Wales is a poor one. We require mechanisms that redistribute English wealth to meet our needs. Now there are historical arguments to be had about that wealth. For example how much of the wealth created in Wales during the coal boom stayed in Wales for Wales’ benefit? However these arguments, whatever their validity, are unlikely to impact on current political events.

    Political attention in Wales needs to focus on wealth creation, not just so that we can enjoy a higher standard of living and better quality of life, but also that we have the wealth that helps us exercise leverage and power in negotiations with other countries, in particular England.

    But Lee’s comments that Wales is returning to its traditional position of being on the margins of English politics is accurate. The litmus test of this however is how the political parties respond to the Silk Commission recommendations in their manifestos for 2015.

  6. @ Christopher Drew

    Wishful (and typically innocent) thinking from a junior Times correspondent I think.

    England will a) certainly not let Wales or Scotland go easily or b) [in the event that they did leave] impose penal conditions of separation which result in an inequitable and unsustainable long-term relationship because…

    there is no point having a lovely moat around your front door with a drawbridge and portcullis if you don’t even own the back garden, let alone control who come and parks his catapults and siege engines in it.

    In the absence of direct military and political control, the only option available to the English (or any) state for the protection of its security is some sort of a win-win accommodation with its neighbour(s). The nearer the neighbour is to the (metaphoric) crown jewels the greater the control or accommodation has to be.

    I think the Scots understand this (and always have), as does the English state (but doesn’t tell the children so as not to frighten them at night), but we twp Welsh haven’t got it in a thousand years and I don’t see much prospect of that changing very soon, hence our wailing about an impending catastrophe whilst sitting on a golden egg…

  7. “Because exactly what is the Scots’
    bargaining chip, post referendum? Refuse to
    go ahead with independence? ”

    Two rather obvious and huge bargaining chips held by a post-yes Scotland would be the timetable for the withdrawl of Trident and accepting/rejecting a share of the UK’s massive national debts.

  8. Mr Richards, I like your four scenarios and I agree with your probability assessments on the first two. On the other two, however, you have got the odds badly wrong. The chances of Plaid finding a saviour who will lead the nation to independence is very low. They may find a political genius but all (s)he could do would be to restore their support to the level Dafydd Wigley achieved. Plaid would double its support and become the second biggest party by a clear margin but that is not enough. The fact that many Welsh people are unaccountably paranoid about the language, which they don’t speak, and that Wales would incontestably be worse off under independence, at least for many years, caps what Plaid can do. The chances of your fourth scenario are not low, they are zero. This Assembly doesn’t want powers that make it have to take hard decisions and be accountable. Carwyn Jones is a lawyer who is tickled at the thought of a Welsh legal jurisdiction but he is wriggling hard to avoid any responsibility for income tax. What will they do when they can’t blame Westminster? The slide to independence is a nightmare but you can wake up. It ain’t happening.

  9. England wealthier than Wales? I’m not sure there’s much difference in fact.

    Take London out of England and you get a much more equitable picture. London’s wealth is based on institionalised theft from other nations, state backing of corrupt monopolies and fraud in parts of the finance industry that is still wide spread today. The latter is the real reason Nobby Barage of USKIP is so vitriolic against the EU. Imagine being stopped from fleecing people with Wash Trades! How discracful! How much better to bring back all those currencies and fleece even more people. No wonder the Banksters are throwing so much money at him and his party.

    Nevertheless, he will not change the fact that because of Independence some 99% of countries formerly under English rule are bettter off because of it and certain of them are increasingly excerting their natural economic power that was so long denied them. The result is that the West is getting poorer. It’s goverrnments (some more than others) are trying to make up the difference using debt.

    Let’s be honest. The UK is on the verge of failing to service its £1.4Tr debt which the economic magazines say is 90% of the UK’s GDP. That’s 90%!!!!!!

    Aparently is was touch and whether Nobbly Mirage and his cronies were going to attack Greece or the UK when the crash happened. They finally decided to go for Greece so their bonuses would buy them posher holidays.

    The UK is the very model for the EU that Eurosceptics so detest. No doubt they would love the EU if it was run by London for London. It’s what is generally known as hypocracy.

    I think there’s a much higher desire for independence than 12%. It is suppressed by lack of confidence.

    It would be very interesting to do what they did in Scotland and had a poll asking “If Wales was currently an independent country would you vote For or Against joining England in a Union as currently constituted?”

    In Scotland some 75% said they would not. Now I wonder why we haven’t heard much about that one?

  10. Mr Tredwyn, your assessment is shrewd but you under-estimate politicians’ addiction to power. Honestly, it is like catnip to them.

    So Plaid are as capable of change as the SNP if given a sniff of opportunity. Your excellent summary of the current position – “the fact that many Welsh people are unaccountably paranoid about the language, which they don’t speak, and that Wales would incontestably be worse off under independence, at least for many years, caps what Plaid can do” – refers only to the current position.

    Likewise, Carwyn Jones may well be suspicious of Greeks, or Cameroons, bearing gifts, but the Assembly will not be able to resist forever. Does anyone believe it will not have tax powers by the end of the decade?

  11. Are the people of Wales sleep-walking towards independence or are they being groomed to accept independence?

  12. Call it sleepwalking if you will Lee, but independence by default is a possibility. A resurgent English nationalism – personified by UKIP, Labour and other Anglo isolationists – will undoubtedly foster constitutional change. Scotland will have devo-max, at the minimum, by 2015 / 2016. England will see campaigns and petitions for English-only legislation to be enacted through an England-only authority. Those voices will be amplified through the media, in the same way that they have cultivated Farage so that he has become more talked about than Prime Minister Cameron. Wales – staunchly apathetic to the last – may be left with something (devo max, or potentially more) whether we (finally) demand it or not. But let us face reality and admit that this is now a Scotland / England movement for change. Here “in the Principality”, to quote the BBC, we will continue to yawn as others plot our future.

  13. It seems appropriate to return to this subject not from the point of view of sleepwalking to independence but rather sleepwalking to EU exit. In the wake of David Cameron’s humiliation on being rebuffed on Juncker’s appointment as European Commissioner, the blood of the Eurosceptics, in particular the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, is up.

    There seems to be an assumption in English politics that a referendum on EU membership is both necessary and inevitable and that if David Cameron cannot come back with substantial yet by most accounts unachievable reforms, then the only option is to withdraw.

    This is significant for Wales in that the First Minister and his Government have publicly declared that withdrawal from the EU would be disastrous for Wales. But the political question is what leverage the Welsh Government has on this issue. In terms of the head of steam building up in England, those advocating withdrawal are not the slightest bit interested in the views of Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish political representatives. It is assumed that they will all travel in the wake of whatever England decides.

    There are of course two important events that will occur before the above scenario comes to pass. The first is the referendum in Scotland on September 18th and the second is the UK general election on 7th May 2015. It would be foolish to try and predict events beyond these two dates. But both the Times and the Guardian flagged up this possibility in yesterday’s editions. The Times read:

    “Britain nears EU exit.”

    The Guardian read:

    “Britain closer to EU exit after Juncker vote.”

    As things stand, if Labour were the larger party in a coalition after May 2015, then the steam would come out of this current campaign. But the possibility of the Conservatives becoming the largest party is not remote. If it did not have an overall majority, the only way of stopping this headlong rush for the exit door would be for other parties to refuse to form a coalition with them. Yet that stance would have its own political consequences.

    Either way, there seems to be a perfect storm brewing across the Dyke and foreseeably there is little that either the Welsh Government or the Welsh Assembly can do to avoid being dragged in and along by however it is played out.

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