From a State of Mind to a Nation State

Dr Brian Merfyn Jones and Dr Edward Thomas Jones argue that independence is desirable and that our existing devolved structures should be utilised to prepare Wales.

The sense of Wales as a place and of being Welsh as an identity is not a controversial view.

Through preserving Welsh as a cultural identity, Wales can claim to have maintained its independence with considerable success for centuries. When Gwyn Alf Williams asked the rhetorical question in “When was Wales?”, he concluded that it was to be found in a permanent present, “making and remaking themselves in generation after generation”, existing as a “nation without a state”.

There is no question that Wales exists, but unlike Scotland, with its historical political, legal, educational, and monetary structures, it never fully developed the institutional infrastructure of an early modern state.

Where Scotland had an existence independent of its powerful and rapacious neighbour, England, Wales has spent its centuries managing the imbalances of its relationship with England, which helps explain why its calls for independence lack the clamour and confidence displayed by Scotland. 

As the comfort blanket of a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is torn away in a post-Brexit Britain, the possibility, even likelihood, of a united Ireland and an independent Scotland is moving ever closer. It is increasingly likely that they will develop their own economic and political trajectories, which reflect their needs as sovereign states, under the EU umbrella.

The next question must be, what next for Wales? Despite voting Leave, Wales remains divided, with, in broad terms, western Wales and the University cities for Remain and the eastern counties for Leave. Its leadership though, is becoming increasingly aware and alarmed that a “hard” Brexit in January 2021, will be devastating for an economy in which manufacturing and agriculture continues to play a significant part. Agriculture, manufacturing and technical activities employ nearly. 20% of the workforce in Wales and overall 60% of Welsh exports are to the EU.

What if independence becomes the only way to defend Welsh interests, in health, education, the economy, environment and culture?

Up to now there has been a nationalist case for independence and an economic case made for remaining under the umbrella of the UK, albeit with increased autonomy. This is a permanent present in which Welsh identity is maintained, but with independence remaining a minority view.  

However, failure to conclude a trade deal with the EU, followed by making a trade deal with the US could dramatically change the political and economic landscape in England, with consequences for Wales over which it would have little or no control.

Defending Welsh interests against a UK government, aggressively deregulating in accordance with US wishes, as expressed in their published negotiating objectives, will be beyond the powers of the Welsh Government. Wales will have no locus in the negotiations, as it is a UK international trade treaty and not a devolved matter.

The question then becomes “What if independence becomes the only way to defend Welsh interests, in health, education, the economy, environment and culture?”

Given that the UK government is bitterly opposed to another referendum on Scottish independence, it may be assumed that opposition to independence for Wales would be equally strong. The dismissal of the Scottish request and the reaction of their First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon suggests that the nature of the relationships between the UK government and the devolved regions will come under close and long overdue scrutiny.

These relationships, far from being a partnership, and certainly not of equals, have been exposed again and again, not least by Covid-19, as the last hurrah of imperial domination. A UK government dominated by English interests will continue to seek to impose its will on everyone else. Critically, devolution is by statute and therefore, having no constitutional status, can be revoked by a government with a simple majority.

Where does this leave Wales?  It may have limited options under the present constitutional settlement, but it does have choices and these choices are shaped by attitudes to the post-Brexit situation rather than conditioned by past circumstances. It is the choice between being defined by its history or by designing its future. 

If Wales was granted independence tomorrow, what would it look like as an independent country? Without a settled, or even a shared, clearly articulated view of a future Wales, the country will continue to be locked into a permanent present, a “nation without a state”.

Its principal road and rail networks reflect ancient east-west invasion routes rather than providing the north-south connections, which would more accurately reflect the geography of the country.

It is possible to construct a preliminary outline of a vision for an independent Wales. A vision, which embraces modernity, is self-sufficient in energy, water and food, focussed on a “green economy” agenda, is outward looking and internationalist, which seeks to make optimal use of its physical, human, and natural capital, as well as its vanguard role in promoting the “well-being of future generations”. 

Wales is not a large country, but not so small as not to be independent. With a population of around 3.2 million it would come in at 22 (out of 28) in EU population rankings, behind Croatia and above the Baltic States, Slovenia, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta. Size is not in and of itself a problem.

Nor is Wales the poorest, with a GDP per capita of €22,900 it is above Portugal and most of the eastern European member states. It is however, considerably poorer than the leading nations including the UK at €37,400 and Ireland at €47,800. It should be noted that these are averages and there are considerable variations within states.  West Wales and the Valleys are poorer than East Wales and pockets of low pay and poverty can be found right across Wales.


Wales faces serious challenges, but arguably these are a legacy from its past. Whilst the UK has historically benefitted from Welsh slate, copper, coal and iron, it has left a country with a distorted infrastructure, which services its relationship with England rather than meeting the needs of Wales.

Its principal road and rail networks reflect ancient east-west invasion routes rather than providing the north-south connections, which would more accurately reflect the geography of the country. If Wales is to prosper as an independent country, then a 21st century transport infrastructure which unites the country is essential.

Infrastructure is a good place to start if we are to consider an independent Wales. It falls within the remit of the Welsh Government and addresses the criticism that the centre of gravity lies south of the Brecon Beacons. Wales needs to be identifiable as a united and joined up geographical entity if it aspires to be a nation state.

5G connectivity is essential, but is not a substitute for upgrading hard infrastructure across Wales. It should be possible to travel by train from Bangor to Cardiff without an excursion through England via Chester and Shrewsbury, and 4 hours for a journey of 170 miles is unacceptable, in an era of high-speed rail transport.

An independent Wales would need a 21st century road and rail network and to protect and develop its ports and airports, if it is to be able to communicate effectively within Wales and to connect with its neighbours and its markets. 

Local Government and Governance

The second area of concern is the governance of Wales and this again is a legacy of the past. Local Government reorganisation in 1996 destroyed the existing two tier system, which allowed the district councils to manage the local and immediate and the county councils to manage the large scale and strategic, within 7 sub regions demarcated as counties.

The result is that Wales has 22 unitary authorities which are too small to operate effectively without extensive collaboration, made difficult by competing political objectives and differing organisational cultures.

The unitary authority boundaries bear no relation to the Wales Strategic Plan (or the emerging National Development Framework), Health Board or “blue light” service boundaries and this provides further barriers to effective collaboration.

As with infrastructure, Public Administration in Wales falls within the purview of the Welsh Government.  The Welsh Government itself has assumed much of the remit of the Welsh Office in Wales with responsibilities transferred by statute.

It operates under the “Westminster” model where the party with the most seats forms the executive and there is no separation of powers. An independent Wales might wish to rethink these arrangements. Drafting a Constitution for Wales as a shadow document for an independent Wales would focus thinking on the constitutional requirements of a modern state operating under a separate legal jurisdiction.

This process would provide the opportunity for a fresh approach to governance in Wales, unconstrained by legacy and appropriate for a modern 21st century state. There is nothing to stop the Welsh Assembly undertaking such preliminary work now.

Human Capital

The third area of concern is the creation and maintenance of the human capital needed to service a modern economy. It has already been recognised that a “hard” Brexit could lead to major manufacturing companies, such as Airbus, relocating their production to within the EU, because of the supply chain problems they will face (Airbus wings are flown direct to Toulouse with minimal paperwork at present).

‘Rules of Origin’ alone will mean significant changes to current procedures. They provide an example of actions having consequences, particularly where supply and distribution chains are dependent on the “four freedoms”, to move goods, services, capital and people unhindered across the EU.

Wales has many assets, which would be the envy of many countries.

Although some employees would be able to transfer to EU production sites, the majority will be unlikely to do so. These are highly skilled jobs and difficult to replace. There is a strong likelihood that those who were directly employed and those in local supply chains, including education and professional support services, will disperse into the diaspora of those forced to seek work elsewhere.

The human capital accumulated, often over generations, will be lost to the area concerned, as in the Welsh Valleys following the closure of the coal mines, condemning those who remain to a generation of uncertain employment and decreased prosperity.

Creative destruction and renewal are a feature of capitalism, as Joseph Schumpeter espoused, but it should not be allowed to destroy human capital without consideration of the impact on national economic capability. The creation and maintenance of human capital depends on an industrial strategy derived from a detailed sectoral analysis, linked to a vision of what a 21st century Wales should be. 

Every nation state wants a thriving economy with high paid, highly skilled jobs in a knowledge economy supporting rising living standards able to compete at the highest level. However, wishing does not make it so and Wales has to decide in which sectors it has or seeks to gain competitive advantage and to build a workforce capable of delivering it. Economic development and Education are devolved to the Welsh Government and are key to moving from a permanent present to a future independent Wales.  

Wales has many assets, which would be the envy of many countries. It has the ability to be self-sufficient in food and energy and has a thriving agri-business, (with a total turnover of £7.5 billion in 2019) with a strong export market in products such as lamb, beef and dairy products.

It retains a significant manufacturing capability and the skills to support innovation, derived from R&D incubated in a mature university sector. It can also boast its own science park, one of only 400 worldwide. 

Wales has an extensive and accessible coastline, national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, historic castles, industrial sites and country houses. There are marinas and yacht basins together with opportunities for a wide range of outdoor activities from rock climbing to mountain biking to sailing, canoeing and hiking, as well as international golf courses. Snowdonia has global recognition and there is no reason why Wales should not have a world-class tourism industry, which should be used to showcase Wales as a location of choice to live, work and play. 

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Belief in a compelling and bold vision

Although there are many fiscal and legal obstacles to independence, there is much that can be achieved, within the existing devolved structures, to prepare Wales for a more confident independent future.

An effective political system, modern infrastructure and a skilled workforce are a ‘necessary, but not sufficient condition’ for economic success. It requires a compelling and bold vision around which the country can come together and commit to.

That requires leadership at all levels throughout Wales, if Wales is to move from its permanent present to an independent future. Brexit is a catalyst for the fresh thinking needed if Wales is to have the economic structure and policies to survive its consequences. There has been much Anglo-centric talk of economic support for the newly Conservative North of England, but scant reference to any support for Wales.

If Wales is to move from a state of mind to an independent state, it requires a belief that change is possible, that Wales can step out of the shadow of England and invest its attitude for independence with a new meaning.

“The meaning of things lies not in the things themselves, but in our attitudes towards them”

Antoine de St Exupery        Wisdom of the Sands (1948)

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Dr. Brian Merfyn Jones is a Lecturer in Strategic Management and Public Administration at Bangor Business School, Bangor University. His research interests includes Welsh, UK, and EU politics, the existential threat to the devolution settlement in Wales, and opportunities for independence. He is also Chair of Anheddau Cyf., a not-for-profit organisation providing social care, based in Bangor.
Dr. Edward Thomas Jones is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at Bangor Business School, Bangor University. His research, which mostly has a policy focus, is primarily in the area of economic growth, regional industrial structures, and innovation in public and private finance.

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