Towards an Independent Wales: A Solid First Step?

Andy Regan dissects the Independence Commission’s report and raises some unanswered questions.

Let me start by outing myself… I am indycurious. 

I was born in the north west of England, and so have no prior disposition towards Welsh independence – it wasn’t something that came up a lot. Having chosen to make Wales my home, it won’t be long now until I can say I have lived here for more than half my life. 

Most of that time has been spent working in and around Welsh public policy, and thinking about Wales’ future is officially now my day job. So I was delighted to have an excuse to get stuck into reading the 200+ pages of the Independence Commission’s first report, in preparation for chairing a discussion at Plaid Cymru’s conference. 

I am a natural sceptic in all things, and particularly when it comes to policy. I’ve concluded there are only really three questions we should always ask when it comes to making policy. 

“Is it the right thing to do?” By and large this is a question most of us will answer instantaneously. This is where our personal political philosophy comes in.

“Will it work?” This is policy. Defining ‘it’ and ‘work’ can take some serious mental lifting, and this is a question we should ask and ask again as we pursue whatever it is we’re doing. Our plans are only as good as their interactions with objective reality. 

“Is it worth the bother?” This is what blogger Chris Dillow has described as ‘the Cushnie Principle’, and it’s an undervalued question in policy making. The bigger the intervention, the longer the timescale, and the more points of potential failure, then the bigger and more credible the payoff should be. Changes to people’s lives which they can see and feel are, ultimately, all that matters.

So as an indycurious person, in my heart I would prefer to vote Yes in an independence referendum if and when one is held. But my head rules my heart, so if the referendum was next week I would vote No. 

“The first report of the Independence Commission is a solid piece of work… There is now a tangible plan people can critique.”

To vote Yes, I would need to see a plan. I want to know the details of how the challenges independence would create would be overcome. And ultimately I would have to believe it will be worth it. That it will make life in Wales better, not worse. 

The IWA was established in 1987 in part to help build the intellectual case for Welsh devolution. But we have so far chosen not to take a position on Welsh Independence. We want to focus on how that debate plays out, and how the decision should be made. 

We want to see the case for (or against) independence being made on the basis of sound evidence, a clear plan, and honesty about what the trade offs involved will mean for people’s lives. 

We want a debate where all the diverse communities of Wales can have their voices heard. And ideally if and when Wales decides, we want the decision to be made in a way which reflects the best democratic principles, is not divisive, and where everyone can unite behind the result.

By all those measures, the first report of the Independence Commission is a solid piece of work. It takes a patient, consultative approach to how the decision should be made. It does not gloss over or sugar coat the challenges independence would present, and it sets out specific recommendations for attempting to address them. There is now a tangible plan people can critique.

“While Wales could be economically ready for independence in the future, we are not there yet. So how will we know when we are?”

So I do not agree with the stance taken by Dr John Ball in his article earlier this week. Transitioning to independence will clearly be a complex process, and it should be planned for as such. Wales can ill afford to go through another major constitutional change which has not been properly thought through, and the report is a valuable first step.

The Commissioners would, I imagine, be the first to acknowledge that there is plenty more to be done. As well as setting out major structural and cultural reforms to the Welsh civil service, the report also calls, directly or indirectly, for the creation of around twenty brand new public bodies that I counted. 

It’s a credible sketching of the form a Welsh state would need to take post-independence. However, the plans needed to deliver it would be, to put it mildly, significant.

Coffee break blogs such as this aren’t the place to interrogate the granular details of hypothetical public bodies that may be created a decade from now. So instead I want to point to a few bigger questions where I’d like to hear more from the Independence Commission. 

Question 1: “How will we know Wales is ready for independence?”

Let’s be clear, talking of Wales as ‘too poor’ or ‘too small’ is a specious argument which the Commission wisely does not address directly. What it does do is outline the many structural weaknesses of the Welsh economy, and set out ways to avoid an impact on quality of life if an independent Wales did not close the fiscal gap. 

“If the Welsh Government has no leverage today, why would we conclude it will be able to secure the hoped for concessions in these negotiations?”

The implication can only really be that, while Wales could be economically ready for independence in the future, we are not there yet. So how will we know when we are? 

Could we set ourselves qualitative and quantitative economic indicators that would give a green light for a referendum? What should those be?

It could only help the public’s trust in the approach the Commission has set out if they could plausibly imagine a Plaid First Minister looking them in the eye and saying “We’re not there yet. The referendum is postponed”.

Question 2: “Does Wales have leverage over Westminster or not?”

The report states that to assume the UK economy could be rebalanced away from the current dominance of London and the south east under the status quo, “it would be necessary to imagine a Cardiff Bay Government being able to exert considerable leverage on Westminster to secure the transformational expenditure and diversion of resources to Wales that will be needed.” 

It is hard to square this with the fact that the report also sets out a significant number of quite major areas requiring successful negotiation between the UK and Welsh governments after independence. These include things like access to centralised services like the BBC, overseas healthcare and border services, as well as the continuing presence in Wales of bodies like the DVLA, ONS and Companies House which would then continue to service the rest of the former GB. 

“People want independence to unlock a more radical change to the status quo, not just put it under new management.”

Two other major areas to be negotiated would be Wales’ share of UK national debt, and a proposal for the UK Government to continue contributing to Wales’ £6bn in pension liabilities over a 20-25 year period.

So if the Welsh Government has no leverage today, why would we conclude it will be able to secure the hoped for concessions in these negotiations?

The report says “the argument would be that an independent Wales capable of standing on its own feet would emerge, lifting a burden from the rest of Britain, and thus in its interests”. 

As well as being an unusually pessimistic note to strike, surely the financial ‘burden’ on HM Treasury would be lifted even more quickly by agreeing to no ongoing post-independence subsidy at all?

Question 3: “Is independence worth the bother?”

The Commission, as I have said, has engaged seriously with the complexities and challenges of independence. The Yes / No decision should never be portrayed as one of two equally straightforward and risk-free options, and it is to their credit that they do not do so. 

However there is a bridge to be built between where Wales is and where it could be, and the first stretch of that bridge needs to be built over a chasm of as-yet-unbuilt infrastructure.

In a world of finite time and resource, there is an opportunity cost to any reform. Pursuing independence can only mean diverting civil service time and ministerial bandwidth from other priorities – the NHS, the economy, climate change. 

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As it stands, I wouldn’t be the only person to observe that the post-independence future envisaged by the Commission doesn’t feel terribly different from what has come before. A reformed civil service, a new Welsh Development Agency, a dedicated port for trading with the EU… All sensible suggestions, all, importantly, possible right now. 

My hunch is people want independence to unlock a more radical change to the status quo, not just put it under new management. I’m no advocate for radicalism for its own sake, but I doubt many of those marching for indy in Cardiff, Bangor and Merthyr are fired up by the reintroduction of quangos. 

Ultimately, the case for independence needs to rest, not just on what could happen, but on what – on the weight of the evidence – most likely will happen. Again, a big ask against the backdrop of global socio-political uncertainty over the past 5 years. 

I do not need any further persuasion that Wales has not done well out of its relationship with the country of my birth, but the inverse of a problem is not always the solution. If a person has been run over by a lorry, we will not heal them by reversing over them with a lorry.

The next steps for the Independence Commission should surely be honestly examining ways independence could ‘fail’. Only then can we understand the balance of risks, and how to reduce them.

I want to believe. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.


Andy Regan is working within the Nesta Cymru (Wales) team as a mission manager for the 'A Sustainable Future' mission. He was previously Policy and External Affairs Manager at the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

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