‘Wales sleepwalking to independence’ revisited

Dylan Moore looks at how a 2014 IWA article speculated on the current political situation.

Amid the political earthquake of Brexit, #MysticClegg has been trending on Twitter. The former Deputy Prime Minister’s article for iNews on the eve of the referendum was remarkably prescient, predicting as it did a ‘mess’ comprising bloody leadership elections, constitutional gridlock, bickering, financial turmoil, an emboldened Nicola Sturgeon pressing for Scoxit and the absence of a plan to lay that central plank of the Leave campaign: taking ‘control’ of the UK’s borders.

In Wales, it seems we have a near-equivalent to Clegg’s article in former IWA Director and now Llanelli AM Lee Waters’ cover story for the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of the Welsh Agenda. The provocative headline ‘Is Wales sleepwalking to independence?’ was subtitled ‘Could the Euro elections set off a chain of events that will lead Wales to the brink of independence?’

And although his carefully reasoned argument may not have arranged the tiles in exactly the right order, Waters’ prediction of a domino effect largely beyond the control of Wales’ own politicians makes for remarkably prescient reading. ‘Let’s consider what could happen,’ he begins, painting a scenario where a strong UKIP showing in the European elections is ‘seized upon by skittish Conservative MPs… to put pressure on David Cameron’. Waters predicts a Europe referendum precipitating a Scottish exit from the UK, though not the Leave victory itself – he gets the Scotland and Europe dominoes the wrong way around, but the result is the same, or perhaps even more momentous/catastrophic than anyone could plausibly have imagined back in 2014.

Waters imagines the impending rupture of the 1707 union ‘the biggest psychological blow to the ruling elites since the fall of the Raj’ and ‘just the beginning of a lengthy negotiation on the terms of Scotland’s withdrawal from the UK’. With what now seems like unnecessary understatement, Waters predicts: ‘It could well get ugly’.

His next question – ‘So where would that leave Wales?’ – is one that Carwyn Jones, Waters himself and all of his new colleagues in the Assembly now face. ‘Unsettled’ is another massive understatement. Like leaders across the United Kingdom, with the sole and very notable exception of Nicola Sturgeon, it is far from clear what Jones’ – or Wales’ – next move should or could be. Full coalition with Plaid? Demand for yet more powers? Renegotiation of the Barnett formula? Continuing to act as a lobby group for inward investment and protecting the cornerstones of our economy?

Whatever Carwyn Jones chooses to do next, whatever the priorities, Waters’ article contains yet more stark and prescient analysis of the situation as it seems to be playing out. If Scotland goes, England will comprise 92% of what Waters dubs ‘the rump state’. In an RUK, ‘Wales will always struggle to influence’. Perhaps the most pertinent passage of all is where the nightmare scenario of Brexit is given serious consideration:

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.

Well, turkeys have voted for Christmas and the geese seem to have flown. To make matters worse for Welsh Labour, the very honest analysis Waters makes about the party’s enthusiasm for devolution being rooted in ‘being sure of exercising power in Wales’ is now, seemingly, under serious threat from the populist right.

Lee Waters finishes his article by returning to the central hypothesis: the idea that Wales may be sleepwalking to independence. ‘Clinging to our comfortable certainties may not be an option, he writes. ‘The world around us may change so dramatically that we find ourselves with a series of bleak choices… it’s about time we started facing up to the fact that the ground beneath is moving.’

2016 was all set to be remembered as the year we mourned David Bowie and Muhammad Ali; Prince and Harper Lee; George Martin, Alan Rickman and Terry Wogan; Ronnie Corbett, Paul Daniels and Victoria Wood; Merle Haggard and Howard Marks. It might yet be the year we witness the end of the United Kingdom, leaving little old Wales at the behest of forces way beyond our jurisdiction. We might end up with the bleakest choice imaginable: not so much winning independence but having it thrust all-but-unwanted upon us, or admitting we have become – as the electoral maps are suggesting – a region of England after all.

Dylan Moore is the IWA's Comment and Analysis Editor.

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