‘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.

7 thoughts on “‘Wales sleepwalking to independence’ revisited

  1. Dylan, there comes a time to have an inquest, and then to move on with a clear sense of direction. The current gyrations in Westminster should be the cue to initiate dialogue in Wales about a future marked by greater uncertainty than was anticipated a few months, or even a few days ago. Leadership for this dialogue has to come from within, not without.
    The notion of good governance suggests an opportunity for the newly elected Welsh government to take the initiative by reaching out and engaging with the differing sides of the debate to develop a way forward, and debate the results in the Assembly.

  2. Lee’s article was at the time a rallying cry to his party to reinvigorate itself, something that he has continued to do as the AM for Llanelli. The alternative would be to cede ground to Plaid Cymru and it is no secret, certainly not now, that Plaid’s next targets are the former industrial seats of the Valleys. Lee successfully saw off the challenge from Plaid and slightly increased his majority. His victory shows that this message had resonance with the electorate; how many other Lee Waters there are waiting to come through the Labour ranks is another question for another day.

    But the theme of the article was the danger of being overtaken by events if matters were allowed to run their course. And everyone has been overtaken by the referendum result, including those who won the vote in England and in Wales. The most immediate impact has been the collapse of the two major political parties at Westminster, something not seen coming by any of the political commentators, including Lee.

    The second impact has been the changed constitutional position of Scotland. Whilst most of the political leaders in England have been running around like the proverbial headless chickens, Nicola Sturgeon has appeared positively stateswomanlike appearing on the international stage with Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schultz. Her position is such that it has rattled the cages of the Prime Minister of Spain and President of France. But she is now in a stronger position for this reason. When the Scottish electorate voted to remain in the UK, it was part of the rationale that to do so would mean that Scotland’s position in the EU was unchanged and not subject to having to make a new application to remain within it. As of last Friday, that rationale has disappeared. The question is therefore how many of those who voted to remain in the UK on that basis are now willing to vote for independence in order to remain in the EU. The first evidence on this to emerge in a poll last Friday showed 59% in favour of an independent Scotland. One poll does not an independent country make. But it should be borne in mind that this figure has not been subject to any campaigning by either side. A well-prepared “Let’s Join the EU” campaign could move that figure even higher.

    So, returning to the theme of Lee’s article, where does that leave Wales? Firstly we voted to leave the EU. So Carwyn does not have the mandate that Nicola has, so his political leverage is seriously reduced. He currently has two lines of argument: we must get the best deal possible for Wales in the exit renegotiations and the UK needs a federal arrangement. Whether either of these ways forward proves practicable or fruitful depends heavily on political developments in Scotland.

    If Scotland moves towards the UK exit door and towards the EU entrance, then Labour is left in precisely the predicament that Lee outlined, a rump state attached to a very large neighbour. In these circumstances, a federal UK would be meaningless. And we will be back in the situation of Wales being dependent on English largesse for its funding. Before last Friday, we used to have the European alternative source of finance. That will now disappear and will not be replaced pound for pound by Westminster.

    And here is Lee’s dilemma. In those circumstances, what does Wales do when Westminster says no? Plaid has the option of arguing for an independent Wales within the EU and will have the political example of Scotland and the economic example of Ireland on which to draw.

    There are a great many more developments to come before we ever get to the scenario outlined above. But it could be here sooner than we think. After all, which of us foresaw last Friday’s result?

  3. Nicole Sturgeon’s futile strip to the E.U. earlier this week when she was frozen out ,is no surprise.The French fear the Basques breaking out of France and going for membership of the E.U. Spain has the same problem with Catalonia.Indeed there are many regions throughout the E.U. looking like Scotland & I suspect some Welsh Nationalists
    trying to play that same game.The answer from France Spain,and the majority of members of the E.U. will be to say a very plain NO CHANCE !
    Once the penny has dropped with Mrs Sturgeon and she accepts it she will realise that she has two options.Either to go for full independence without a penny from Britain of Barnett money or any other kind of hand out, or to remain in the Union.
    At this point I believe that Scotland will return to the old Formula of a strong Labour Party and a Conservative opposition together with the S.N.P. as the laughable rump on the side.Just as used to be the case in Scotland when
    everyone knew that neither Scotland or Wales was wealthy enough to afford self government

  4. Few people I know support Welsh independence and devolution will not lead to independence. If having a say in running your own affairs automatically leads to independence then the USA, Germany, India, Australia and a host of other countries would not exist now. Now is the time to get more power for the Assembly and to make it our Parliament. Between now and the next election Wales and the rest of the UK are going to face difficult times and we need a strong Welsh Parliament to protect Wales and fight our corner for investment and jobs. I am happy to be British and Welsh (sadly I cannot be European now), most people talking about Welsh independence are unionist nationalists who will gleefully take Wales down the road to ruin in order to return us to their mythical pre-devolution world were the sun shone 12 hours a day every day and we lived in a land of milk and honey.

  5. There’s some silly Leave type rubbish here!

    For a start as a frequent visitor to France and Belgium and getting French TV at home, I can assure you that France will welcome its old ally, newly free from oppression, with open arms.

    As for “most people talking about Welsh independence are unionist nationalists” that’s a complete, convoluted contradiction in terms. Next you’ll be telling me Mussolini was ant-fascist.

    Unionism is a philosophy of destruction of nations to create one nation. It’s cultural and racial genocide. It’s opposed by people who support justice and freedom. So that doesn’t innclude Imperialists and Fascists (essentially the same).

  6. I agree unionism is worse, far worse, than nationalism. But Unionist Nationalist has gained favour on forums, unionists like to accuse everyone of being a nationalist, its okay to get their way and walk over everyone if you call them nationalists.

    France and Germany must already be having talks about what to next, how to handle Brexit and what to do about Scotland will be on the agenda. The SNP have already held talks with the EU president and France will gleefully push for Scotland to be admitted in place of the UK and Germany will have to side with France. True Spain and some of the other countries will object but France and Germany will do what they do best, horse trade until they get their way. What is that saying, whoever controls the purse strings? You can bet some of the banking jobs the UK lose will go to Spain as well as a good chunk of Asian and American manufacturers looking to set up shop in the EU.

  7. The sleepwalk actually began in 1997, as some of us warned at the time. That was when the ball started rolling downhill – sorry to mix metaphors – and, in accordance with the laws of political physics, it was inevitable that it would pick up momentum – unless, somehow, it was stopped dead, which would become increasingly difficult.

    It is actually in an earlier issue of ‘Agenda,’ published just before the 2010 general election, that the more accurate prediction is to be found. It forecast a hung Parliament, a decade of turmoil, and the impetus for ever greater Welsh autonomy coming not from Wales but from an English Conservative Party increasingly divorced from its Unionist roots and alert to the political advantages of an England without the incumbrance of socialist Celts. Modesty forbids naming the author.

    Make no mistake: most English people would still prefer to keep the UK intact if possible, but if Scotland goes, then the UK is gone, and then they will not be sentimental about edging us out of the nest.

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