It is only in the last few years that the plausibility of Welsh independence has reached a stage where it is now a serious prospect in the medium term. The debate quickly becomes polarised, but I think that if the prospect is becoming more likely then we should look at it seriously and in a dispassionate manner. To do so will help get beyond the normal soundbites. For example, I have heard nationalists dismiss the supposed challenge that Wales is 'too small and too poor' far more often than I have heard unionists make the assertion in the first place. It suits the nationalist narrative because it portrays the unionists as talking down Wales and it avoids some of the more challenging questions as to how one would actually unravel centuries of common institutions between Wales and and the rest of the UK.
Money and emotion
In the 2014 ("once in a generation") Scottish Independence Referendum, the unionist case focused on the economic arguments. This helped win the day on that occasion but it did surrender a lot of the emotional pull which would traditionally be associated with national identity. That stance probably also inadvertently led to the recent adoption of the phrase a "four nations" approach which implicitly references the UK as an arrangement of convenience rather than conviction.
Personally, I do feel an emotional pull to the other peoples of this island. Whether it be via my very British ancestry or the simple fact that I'd never want to regard my neighbours from when I lived near Bristol to become foreigners to me. I cannot quite comprehend what it is the binds me to people three hours drive to my north west, but supposedly separates me from those living 30 minutes to my east. This is, perhaps, a very island based perspective in a land where borders infrequently change.
The whole principle of a border is in itself a functionary rather than an emotional tool. Settlements are one side or another of a border because a civil servant drew a line on a map likely based on some ancient battle that was in that broad vicinity. Yet, we gold-plate the idea of a border. In some parts of the world they have great political or economic meaning, think of Korea, Israel and its neighbours or the US / Mexican border, but it is hard to make an objective assessment that they hold similar political weight in Britain.
What is Britishness
If the borders of Britain do define difference in the minds of separatists, then the issue might be what we each define as Britishness. I think to some, the term can be used interchangeably with Englishness, I disagree. I am a Welshman who would be very sorry to see Scotland leave the union because I think the people and culture of Scotland are also an integral feature of the culture of Britain. Indeed, this is why I wrote in November advocating a greater inclusion of Welsh culture on the English and Scottish curriculum. I would also like to see the National Eisteddfod visit locations outside of Wales once every five years to help develop understanding of Wales' rich cultural tradition. Historically, the event has been staged in London and Liverpool, but in recent decades it has always been held within Wales.
Devolution and the lack thereof
This conflation between what it is to be British and what it is to be English is not helped by our electoral system. There is a view advocated by opponents of Welsh devolution that the existence of a Senedd itself inevitably fuels separatism. I am sure there is an element of truth to this, although I would disagree with their fatalism. However, the other reason that UK Government decisions are taken which do not effect Wales and Scotland is because there has been no wholesale model of devolution in England. That is another topic, but it is not unrelated to that which we are discussing today. Even the adoption of the term "Government of England" for matters upon which the UK Government only has remit over England would go some way to mitigate against the constant reinforcement that a body with UK in the name is not relevant in Wales which in turn fuels the idea that Britishness and Englishness are one in the same. They are not.
How could Welsh independence come about?
If Wales was to leave the UK there are three likely scenarios.
- A simple in/out referendum. As recent experience has demonstrated, 'simple' can be code for 'dumbed down to the lowest common denominator'. There is little evidence that there is presently sufficient demand for a referendum, let alone enough support for it to deliver a result in favour of independence. There is though beginning to be a pattern of growth in interest in the idea after twenty years of relatively similar polling on the topic.
- The Union simply unravels, this would be likely sparked by Scotland seceding and a reunification of the island of Ireland. It could be a managed gradual process or it could well be a sudden constitutional jolt leaving uncertainty and scrapping over infrastructure and resources.
- England votes for independence in response to Scottish departure. At present this seems the least likely route. Affection for the union may not be strong in England, but nor is their much in the way of activism against it. English ambivalence is a risk to the union in the long-term, but the concern in the short-term would be a reaction to a Scottish vote for independence. In such a maelstrom, the media would likely play a role in heightening tensions. The right wing press would be crowing over the extra funds which would stay in England. The left wing press bemoaning the decline of the UK - even more than usual.
- How will it be funded considering the drop off in tax revenue?
- What will happen to public sector jobs at UK institutions in Wales such as the Royal Mint, DVLA, ONS, Patent Office, and Companies House?
- What expertise and infrastructure would Wales lose from the public sector roles working on behalf of Welsh citizens but which are based elsewhere in the UK?