Rhian E. Jones critiques the growing push for Welsh independence, and calls for more concrete consensus
In the autumn of 1997, still somewhat dazed from seeing the election of the first Labour government of my lifetime, I stood in Tredegar Shopping Centre with the kind of unembarrassable earnestness that only a teenager can muster, handing out leaflets for the upcoming referendum on establishing a National Assembly for Wales. As I remember it, recipients, even those intending to vote Yes, were still politely sceptical about the prospect, as they were (often less politely) about the New Labour project in general.
Regarding the Assembly, the phrase ‘jobs for the boys’ was knowingly invoked, as was disgruntlement at Scotland being offered a Parliament and not merely an Assembly. The eventual scraping through of the proposal in September of that year partly reflected this ambivalence.
Two decades after the country voted narrowly in favour of mild devolution, it’s been surprising to see the rise in support for wholesale independence. While the Welsh Conservatives remain opposed, Welsh Labour have shifted from their previous disdain for ‘narrow nationalism’: activists have established @Labour4IndyWales and Labour voters now make up the biggest share of the ‘indycurious’ Welsh electorate. We’ve come a long way since 1997, and a longer way since the 1979 referendum which saw proposals for Welsh devolution firmly rejected.
It’s likely that a large factor in this pivot to pro-independence is the instability and uncertainty brought on by the potential consequences of Brexit. In the 2016 referendum Wales voted to Leave, although not uniformly or overwhelmingly, and seemingly driven as much by the effects of structural unemployment and austerity as by anti-EU sentiment. Since that vote, few could have foreseen the farcical path pursued by Tory negotiators or the disaster capitalist dogma driving the European Research Group.
Amidst the general political chaos ahead of a probable no-deal, there has been particular consternation over job losses and the withdrawal of EU subsidies to Welsh farming communities. Theresa May’s parting announcement that powers given to the devolved administrations will be ‘reviewed’ after Brexit indicates how little Wales can expect from Westminster under a Tory government and emphasises the still-precarious nature of devolution. From this perspective, a post-Brexit Wales pursuing self-defence through self-determination makes total sense.
If there’s one thing that unites the country’s pro-independence factions, it’s dissatisfaction with the status quo. We can generally agree on what the current problems are – but what are the answers being offered? The cross-party campaign group YesCymru’s publication Independence in Your Pocket seeks to flesh out some alternatives, as does the website of the more radical independence group Undod, and it would be good to see more of this detail informing the debate.
The big questions
Most urgently, what could an independent Wales do to insulate itself from the worst repercussions of a no-deal Brexit? As post-Brexit Prime Minister, Boris Johnson seems inclined to replace the UK-EU trading relationship with economic bondage to Trump’s US. Since there are presumably few in an independent Wales who would want the same, what alternative can we articulate? It’s encouraging that Eluned Morgan has asserted that the Welsh Government would prevent any future US-UK trade deal affecting NHS Wales, though it is difficult to see how this would be practically possible.
There are wider questions around how an independent Wales would manage its own economic and structural resources. How would it create jobs? Given that the Welsh Government was the first in the world to declare a ‘climate emergency’, followed up by Extinction Rebellion’s recent protests in Cardiff, how could this issue be prioritised under an independent government, and environmental concerns integrated into attempts at economic restructuring and encouraging business and technology? How would an independent Wales deal with – to take three immediate if disparate challenges – the closure of Ford’s Bridgend engine plant, the problems faced by the nation’s homeless population, or the impending loss of EU support for both post-industrial and rural swathes of the country?
An important point of possible contention centres on the question of what and who counts as ‘Welsh’. With the far-right attempting inroads into Welsh public and cultural life, frequently evoking fantasies of ancient racial purity which ignore the historic and contemporary heterogeneity of Wales’ makeup, perhaps the term Welsh needs to be broadened on the one hand, broken down on the other. While language, location, party affiliation and parentage are all invoked in these disputes, the majority of pro-independence groups thankfully evince a form of civic nationalism, an inclusive citizenship extending to all those who make the country their home.
Undod explicitly reject ‘national chauvinism’ and embrace solidarity with other progressive independence movements, seeing independence as internationalist rather than isolationist. An independence movement which draws on Wales’s radical left heritage, extending to eco-socialism and republicanism, could do a great deal to combat the resurgent far-right in Wales and elsewhere and to bring together the country’s Welsh-language and socialist traditions within Plaid, Labour, the Greens and beyond.
Independence in your Pocket also points out that independence is ‘a chance to reinvent Welsh democracy’, and it is perhaps here that radical change could be most usefully effected. The Senedd recently agreed an increase in the number of Assembly Members, as recommended by a 2017 panel on Assembly Electoral Reform. While an independent Wales might indeed require a larger executive, any government will still likely struggle to overcome the current democratic deficit between administration and electorate, as well as the ‘top-down’ nature of devolution and Welsh Labour’s particular stagnancy and complacency in government which has been a major factor in political disengagement, and the lack of attention to material and structural conditions to which the Leave vote in Wales was partly a response.
A radical independent Wales could urge greater ambition and accountability in those who hold higher executive power by focusing on direct democracy, acknowledging the varied, often overlooked or forgotten, communities and identities which make up the nation. Further devolution of power to the country’s regions, through strengthening local discussion, decision-making and revenue-raising bodies, would mean an independent Wales could better engage with its local problems, as suggested back in 2013 by Professor Karel Williams. An improved transport network, in particular one linking the country’s north and south, could help lessen isolation and division, while an independent national broadcaster could reflect the complexities and the solidarities of Welsh identity in greater depth and detail than is currently the case.
Like Brexit, independence can look like something of a chimera, or else a blank slate onto which a whole host of hopes, dreams and desires are projected. And, like Brexit, as soon as it acquires any shape or content that can be tested, evaluated and argued over, it loses its sense of pure perfection as an idea – but this is a necessary step in translating it into reality. Brexit has shown us that mass dissatisfaction can be a powerful lever for political upsets, but the aftermath of the Brexit vote has also shown us that upsets are not enough.
Independence is an exciting, frequently intoxicating prospect, but to work it must be more than an abstract ideal and should instead be accompanied by concretely and materially defined alternatives around which a popular consensus can form. A workable independence – like politics in general – is too important to be left to politicians.
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