Wales needs its own Plan B

Geraint Talfan Davies says Wales needs a contingency plan in the event of a Yes vote in Scotland.

The panic may be necessary, but panic it is. With polls saying the Scottish referendum is too close to call, in the next few days Scotland will be offered, constitutionally, something just short of the earth, while markets and big industries will apply the economic frighteners.

Meanwhile the Queen will be wondering whether her reign will be known not for its longevity but for being the last over an united kingdom, and whether the annual trip to Balmoral will henceforth be a trip abroad.

How did we get to this precipice?

It is easy to blame poor tactics on the part of the present UK government, but it is more deep-rooted than that. History and the asymmetry of the United Kingdom makes it inherently difficult for Whitehall to heed consistently, even the periphery of England itself. A centralising mindset, almost unmatched in Europe, has survived devolution to Scotland and Wales.

Centralisation of government and business, the emasculation of local government, the primacy of finance, the neglect of the productive economy, the excessive lauding of the market, the undermining of social solidarity have all made their contribution. Margaret Thatcher had no Plan B for the coal-mining communities.

But what will be the consequences if Scotland does not resist the urge to push us all over the edge? There is much general talk to the effect that there will be change, whatever Scotland decides. No doubt, but a Yes vote will not produce the same kind of change as a No vote. And it might not be as benign.

A bare majority for No could well force the kind of full-scale constitutional reassessment of the governance of the UK that is decades overdue. The First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, has been campaigning for a UK Constitutional Convention to do just that for at least 18 months, unfortunately with precious little response until now.

I say ‘could’ because the British penchant for muddling through on constitutional matters is very deep-seated. That is why we still have the absurdity of hereditary peers in the House of Lords . But Britain has now run out of excuses.

The consequences of a Yes vote are of a different order, and far less predictable. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of Scottish secession from the union. Yes, we can have fun contemplating a name for the rump UK – Little Britain or, more controversially, England. Don’t laugh, the elephant next door would comprise 92 per cent of the population.

We can amuse ourselves re-designing the Union Jack to remove the Scottish saltire and insert a dragon or the cross of St David. We can debate whether a Yes vote would require David Cameron’s resignation, or whether Boris Johnson might become the first Prime Minister of ‘England plus’ on the basis that he might provide England with a psychological pick me up.

But beneath all this would be the reality that the loss of Scotland would be more traumatic for England – and particularly for the political, financial and cultural elites of the south east – than the loss of the British empire. We cannot know what the psychological effect of such an amputation will be.

There is a common, but false assumption that the United Kingdom has endured for all time. Wales was annexed in the 16th century, the crowns of England and Scotland came together under the Stuarts at the beginning of the 17th century, union with Scotland followed at the start of the 18th century and union with Ireland in the 19th century.

The loss of empire was swifter, but took the best part of a century. Irish Home rule was debated and fought for from the 1870s to 1921. In 1931 the Statute of Westminster declared that colonial legislatures were no longer subservient to the Imperial Parliament. India won its independence in 1947, 90 years after the first Indian mutiny. In 1956 the Suez crisis exposed our lingering imperial pretensions. And four years later Harold Macmillan reminded an audience in South Africa of the ‘winds of change’ blowing through the continent.

Importantly, as the empire ebbed away the power elites were able to suck on two comfort blankets: first, the fact of having been the victor in 1945; second, membership of what was then a very small nuclear club. The UK’s status was not dependent on land mass, population, natural resources or finance. After all, at the end of the war we were broke.

Scottish secession would be a different matter. In historical terms it would have come remarkably swiftly, and the comfort blankets are threadbare. 1945 is now too far away, the world’s nuclear club is bigger, and our nuclear deterrent seems less relevant to modern circumstances.

On the other hand, population and economic performance are now a significant determinant of our relationship with Europe. They help determine our financial contribution and rebate, and our influence over allocation of portfolios in the Commission. The UK’s population determines the number of our seats in the European Parliament. Our military capacity affects our standing in NATO and the UN, as well as our relationship with the United States.

All these would be affected by Scottish secession. It will not be possible – as it was with the loss of empire – for the power elites to go on pretending that nothing had changed. England (and London in particular) would feel this diminishment far more than Wales. The effects of trauma are not always predictable, and recent polling on English attitudes provide no comfort.

Wales would face some perils of its own. With Scotland gone, we might find it easier to get a better overall funding deal through reform of the Barnett formula. But other consequences might be harsher and more unpredictable. For instance, although Scotland would no longer be part of UKTI’s inward investment team, it would be fighting its own corner – like Ireland – with a sharply reduced corporation tax.

Toughest of all would be that Wales would be faced with the harsh reality of its own lack of leverage. The threat of independence for Wales has no current credibility. We do not have oil. Neither do we have – like Northern Ireland – a border with another state that has a claim on us.

Faced with this situation, over the last half century we have been very adept at using Scotland as the battering ram, and following in its wake – what one BBC colleague called ‘kiltstreaming’. That option would be gone. The only leverage that we could build would have to be on the foundation of superior performance which, regrettably, still seems a long way off.

We have a fair idea of what Wales might want out of a new UK settlement in the event of a Scottish no vote. There are no signs yet that we have a Welsh contingency plan in the event of a Yes vote. We need one urgently.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the Welsh National Opera, and a co-founder and former Chair of the IWA.

12 thoughts on “Wales needs its own Plan B

  1. “Now the Prime Minister is confronted with an odd dilemma. Arithmetically, it would seem that he should do a deal with Mr Salmond. If there were an independent Scotland, the Tories, who currently have only one Westminster seat north of the border, would have a permanent majority in what remained. They would corner the market in English nationalism. They would also save a lot of public money. Dave could be the tribal boss of England (with enough muscle to subdue Wales) and Alex could be the same for Scotland.”

    Charles Moore in May 2011. I think this just about sums up the mindset of the London elite. I’m afraid Wales will be facing an existential crisis should Scotland vote yes. The biggest one we ever faced?

  2. Hendre, things have moved on since 2011, the Tories no longer “corner the market in English nationalism”.

    The truth, irrespective of reformed Barnett, or how many more bodies with ‘Wales’ or ‘Cymru’ in the title we see, is that the option facing Wales in the event of a Scottish Yes is stark and simple: assimilation or independence. Because the assimilation is already underway and only independence can halt it.

  3. So the Welsh establishment is as unprepared for a YES vote in Scotland as Westminster that’s not a very comforting or surprising development.

    What’s more surprising is Geraint Talfan Davies view that Wales has no leverage and that it’s a common view among the great and good, it not only shows up the limits of the establishments thinking but perhaps explains why Wales is invisible in Westminster. Wales does have leverage (the LNG pipeline and water are just two) what we don’t have are leaders willing to use that leverage to get a better deal for Wales.

    Perhaps the shock of a YES vote if that is the outcome and its repercussions will force Welsh leaders into thinking outside the box, who knows, but we are certainly in for bumpy ride.

  4. The last time British politicians reacted as they have in the last few days was when Bonnie Prince Charlie reached Derby. It really is pathetic and in many ways insulting to voters not only In Scotland but in the rest of the UK. No wonder so many Scots are switching to yes. On the basis of a couple of opinion polls policy seems now to be made up on the hoof and with no discussion within political parties or with voters. A quick poll on YouGov , for example, shows that there is no majority for extra powers to Scotland. How can you for a start second guess what the UK Parliament elected on May 7th next year will even look like? If all the parties are now signed up to the federal solution for the UK then I assume that they also now support Putin’s idea for a Federal Ukraine! C. L. Mowat who was a Professor of History in the University of Wales once argued that the problem with inter war Britain was that too many of its politicians were’ political pygmies’. If this week’s’ performance is anything to go on they were giants compared to the gang we now have. They all need to wake up and realise that what is happening in Scotland is part of the anti political establishment revolt that is happening across Europe. To use one of President Hollande’s famous phrases ‘It’s a revolt by the Sans Dent’ In France Marine Le Pen incredibly leads opinion polls on who should be the next President and in Germany the CDU has just suffered a major setback in a formally rock solid Lander. Instead of partying in Cardiff Castle or getting lost on the way to a party in Cardiff Bay they need to start working out ways of reconnecting with the vast majority of voters.

  5. If there is a NO vote then current love in between the three main British Nationalist parties will quickly evaporate in a puff of red white and blue smoke.
    Whatever” fair idea” we have it’s certainly not a contingency plan. How can it be, it will apply to circumstances and negotiations pre general election and pre promised EU referendum and ultimately decisions will be made with Wales as a side show to the main Anglo-Scottish event.

    If there is a YES vote then it will be a bit more straightforward. As England and Scotland sort out the terms of separation the people of Wales will have to decide if they want to support parties that are either Welsh nationalist or ENGLAND&wales nationalist. The option of supporting any British nationalist party will have gone.

  6. Good points by Geraint and thanks for raising the big issue which Wales has not discussed.

    Could I just be uncouth and suggest Wales’s Plan B for post Scots Indy vote would also to campaigning for independence for Wales or, at the very least, a time table for free association within rUK – maybe shared currency and military?

    Does anyone truly trust the Westminster to think of Wales’s needs? Scotland will be the big concern and we’ve seem from our experience with Silk that Westminster mayl offer us half a cake and then the internal politics, committees and self-preservation of MPs worked on it and given us a quater of a cake!

    Frankly Wales is in danger of becoming Englandandwales.

    Carwyn Jones seems to be all over the shop. He’s correctly called for a Constitutional Convention but why? I can understand that as being a good ploy to give the veneer that the UK is a family of nations.

    But from his tweets and interview with Radio Wales this morning it seems he’s saying ‘give Wales more devolution … but I won’t use it’.

    He’s like a dog in the manger – wanting Westminster to give him power only so that he can say, no thanks.

    That’s a very very poor and weak hand to play!

    Geraint is right to be afraid but isn’t the lesson from Scotland this? We need to get out of polite seminars and conferences and into village halls ans shopping malls and explain to people why Wales needs more powers.

    There’s a ‘Wales Supports Yes Scotland’ rally organised this Saturday in Cardiff – why not attend that?

    I’d suggest a good turn out at that rally would do more to highlight Wales’s needs to MPs and Westminster and strengthen Carwyn Jones’s hand than playing the ‘good little child’ which Wales is playing now.

    Politics is about power – those of us like Geraint who are concerned for Wales, who see Wales getting a bad deal need to organise. It need not be through the policital parties – it’s probably better done without them initially. But we need to organise and be radical.

    We can start by asking ourselves what do we want? What do we who are concerned about Wales and are afraid of an Englandandwales state really, truly want? Not what do we think other people will give us, or what other people may think of us, or what is allowed. What do we who are concerned about Wales want?

    Over the next 18 months being radical and ‘extreme’ could be the most sensible thing we in Wales could do. We owe it to ourselves and our country.

  7. Interesting article.

    “We have a fair idea of what Wales might want out of a new UK settlement in the event of a Scottish no vote” – do we? Silk II?

  8. Thinking Out Loud: GTD is right about the leverage. The LNG pipeline and the water are trivial compared with the gap between government spending in Wales and Welsh tax receipts. Chuck in Wales’ share of joint spending on debt service, foreign policy etc and you are looking at a gap of at least £12 billion annually. Govt spending in or for Wales is over £30 billion a year and tax receipts are less than £19 billion. Our GDP is not much more than £40 billion so we are getting a hand-out equal to about 30 per cent of GDP. You could buy the water and the pipeline many times over for that. Carwyn Jones refuses to take responsibility for even a bit of income tax unless he is given an even bigger hand out. so how do you think we are regarded by the UK government: indigent whingers whose opinions are of no account. So it will remain until we put up better politicians and start to get our house in order.

  9. The biggest obstacle to a Scottish YES has probably been ‘traditional Labour voters’, the ones who have somehow failed to realise that post Blair the Labour Party they once knew is no more. Fortunately around 25-30% of Labour supporters now intend to vote for independence. There are also a number of left-wing pro-indy parties and movements. This is probably what currently is most lacking in Wales, a broad coalition of groups, Labour especially but also Greens etc. to join with the rather narrow traditional nationalism of Plaid, and to stand in opposition to all the London-based unionist parties. The sooner this happens the better because the clock is already ticking, and as someone has commented above, when the showdown comes it really will be “independence or assimilation”.

    Also the ‘extra powers’ game can at best delay the showdown. They will haggle with you forever over quite how much cake you’re going to be allowed (if you’re good little children). Grow up and demand independence, that way you get to run the entire poptŷ 🙂

  10. Surely both sides have the same Plan B, the one pioneered by the European Union, i.e. if a political Establishment does not like a referendum result, it will either ignore it or find pretexts to have more referenda until it gets the result it wants.

    Remember you read it here.

  11. Excellent post by Urien above, especially…..:
    “We can start by asking ourselves what do we want? What do we who are concerned about Wales and are afraid of an Englandandwales state really, truly want? Not what do we think other people will give us, or what other people may think of us, or what is allowed. What do we who are concerned about Wales want?”
    It’s not in anyone’s interests in Wales to let the country be increasingly bracketed as WalesandEngland, not even for those most sceptical souls, otherwise in a few years we can even wave goodbye to comparatively trivial things (however much they mean to us at the moment) such as our own rugby and football teams, own athetics team etc. It’s time to make demands, not be dictated to. As if this union has ever been good to Wales, or Scotland. The idea that we’re better off together is just hilarious. Wales is in a terrible state as it is and why should England, or the Union, be interested in changing that fact any time soon? The next armed intervention is also just about to start (ISIS), no doubt an excellent opportunity in these so military of isles to remind us all of past glories in order to increase support for the union. Scotland will no longer have to take part in such ventures if they get their way, and will invest their time and energy in futrue on things that really matter for their people.

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