Sunday, 14 February 2021

The prospect of Welsh independence is real, the debate about it is superficial

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
All of these scenarios are likely to be preceded by Scotland leaving the union. That in itself should pose a difficult question. How independent can any nation be, if it opts for independence based on a vote by another nation? More tangibly, it raises the issue that the context for Wales could change very dramatically very quickly making it difficult to make predictions based on current polling or election results.

Learning from Brexit

It is that shifting context which makes it all the more important that the narrative around Wales' constitutional future poses serious questions right now. The EU referendum campaign offered vastly more heat than light and it took a further four years after the votes were counted for the meaning of them to be interpreted. It is not a model to follow.

Liquid assets

Whatever ambitions there might be to build a different kind of economy in Wales, in the first instance there would be a massive drop off in revenue to cover public services in the event of independence. Within the union there is a redistribution of revenue to less affluent areas. This is not simply matter of England topping up the equivalent of the revenue raised in the other nations, but actually within England itself revenue raised from the London and the south east redistributed elsewhere. It is reasonable to propose new economic models for Wales, but what would happen in the interim as one tap is turned off before what would have to entail a largescale reengineering of our economic model is able to show a similar flow of funds into the Welsh treasury?

The choice of water metaphors is not accidental. One of the answers proposed is that Wales which is water-rich, it does rain a lot, could sell this asset to England. This is not a bad idea. Fresh water scarcity is one of the big challenges which is being faced around the globe. It already plays a significant part in international relations. If a nation has vast supplies of fresh water and a relatively low population compared to its natural resources as Russia does and a neighbour with a rapidly growing urbanised population as China does, then there is reason to think there is scope for a market in water to emerge between two nations. At one level that parallel works for Wales and England too, but there would be no guarantee that the demand would either hold up, as advances in desalinisation technology reach market or certainty that Wales would be the obvious trading partner for England of this commodity.

What then would an independent Welsh economy look like? I have my concerns that there is already a strong political will against what activists refer to as neo-liberal globalisation, but that to most people is simply the way western economies have evolved to work. Projects such as those to harness the foundational economy certainly have their place to supplement the wider economy, but Wales cannot opt out of the global market place and expect any outcome other than it falling further behind on economic indicators which will in turn lead to a collapse in quality of life.

The public sector

Our public sector is intertwined across the four nations of the UK. Of course, there are examples though history of such bodies having to be reassigned due to border changes but we should not dismiss the complexity or loss of expertise from such an approach.

On the one hand there is the simple matter of funding public services with the initial severe drop off of resources in the Welsh Treasury. On the other, there is identifying what institutions and services the Welsh state would require.

There are three big questions relating to the public sector in the case of Welsh independence and likely thousands more supplementary ones. For this article let us stick with the big three:
  1. How will it be funded considering the drop off in tax revenue?
  2. What will happen to public sector jobs at UK institutions in Wales such as the Royal Mint, DVLA, ONS, Patent Office, and Companies House?
  3. 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?
The Welsh diplomatic service

I want to next pick out one particular public service, the diplomatic service. At present the UK has ambassadors to every nation and many transnational bodies around the world. Wales has a few business and cultural offices in key cities. The gulf between these two is massive. Of course, to answer the question as to what a Welsh diplomatic service would look like we must also ask what is the mission and purpose of Wales in the international arena.

The Welsh military

Once again the question emerges as to what would a Welsh military look like. Clearly, it would not be on the same scale as a UK force, but could it maintain the skills, expertise and knowledge. This is not simply a matter of counting tanks and jets, but would Wales be able to defend itself from a non-state actor, would it have the intelligence know-how if it was no longer protected by the UK's elite security services?

There is a significant pacifist streak running through the Welsh nationalist movement, but there is also great pride in Wales that our military take part in missions to liberate the oppressed and save lives of those threatened when an authoritarian turns their guns on their own people. Would Wales be a member of NATO, would it participate in multi-national peace keeping missions?

Finally, on this topic there is a question as to what would happen to the UK's permanent seat on the UN Security Council. There might be unfounded nonchalance in England that this would simply fall into their possession. There is no guarantee of this and plenty of reason for other nations to argue against such a plan. One presumes Wales would not acquire it, nor Scotland, but could the whole island of Britain be reduced to three rotating seats rather than the status of permanent member?

Security services

Some might say that British involvement in world affairs has led to it becoming a target and that a Wales outside the union would be safer. I think this is flawed on two levels. Firstly, it suggests that terrorists think logically - I'm really not convinced that is always the case. Secondly, it implies that a withdrawal from world affairs is a desirable outcome where as I think the opposite, we should be more engaged internationally and we should be proud to defend a rules-based system against those who threaten it. One would hope that a Welsh security service would easily be able to join an intelligence sharing group such as the Five Eyes organisation, but access is never going to be at the same level as it was to UK intelligence in a United Kingdom. Nor would matters pertaining to Welsh security be as high on the agenda of established currently UK, but by then English domestic security services.

Scientific innovation

The University of Oxford has been at the forefront of the development of one of the most used Covid-19 vaccines. This occurred in partnership with AstraZeneca, a company headquartered in Cambridge, a city synonymous with biotech agglomeration which has been attracted by the presence of the University of Cambridge. While it is reasonable to note the international nature of medical and scientific research, it is institutions such as these universities and The Crick Institute in London which have ensured that the UK is very frequently at the forefront of research and development. 

The Times Higher Education supplement World University Rankings place Oxford first, Cambridge sixth, Imperial College London eleventh, University College London 16th, London School of Economics 27th, Edinburgh 30th and King's College London 35th. When scored purely based on research, Oxford is first and Cambridge second. The top Welsh inclusion in the overall list is Cardiff University which ranks equal 191st in the world. I'm very proud of studying at Cardiff University and to be in the top 200 universities in the world is no small achievement. However, we can not avoid the reality that as part of the UK we have the greatest research institutions in the world within our borders. An independent Wales would no doubt retain ties with these bodies but they can only plausibly be viewed as becoming looser after separation.

The counter to this point would be that Welsh universities would thrive and develop their research function in an independent Wales. Subject to sufficient funding, which might well be an issue as noted above, it is possible to see this happening. Yet, that is someway short of replacing the role of the best two research universities on the planet and the seven institutions from the UK, but outside of Wales, which feature in the global top 50.

In conclusion

This is not a short blogpost, though I was selective and there are many more issues which would require consideration. I suspect that proportionately more of those who started reading it from a unionist perspective made it to the end than those of a nationalist inclination. I am upfront about my own views, I think this island is better together for reasons both pragmatic and instinctive. Yet, this article is written as much for those who advocate Welsh independence as for those who oppose it. I hope that it stimulates nationalists to provide answers and where appropriate counter my points. 

Should a referendum be forthcoming it will be beneficial to all involved to have a broad-based and realistic debate about how undoing half a millennium of unity would work in practice and how it would effect the people of Wales. I would be pleased if at the end of such a debate a majority re-asserted their dual identities as both Welsh and British, but I accept that this might not be the case and that Welsh independence is a plausible outcome. If that were to occur then I would want to see Wales thrive. The prospect of Welsh success is far greater if the challenging issues, just a few of which I have touched upon above, are tackled openly and honestly in advance of any separation from our neighbours.