This is an issue which is increasingly focusing the minds of many in Wales, especially since Brexit and the impetus in Scotland towards another independence referendum, possibly in October 2023.
As highlighted by the author of Independent Nation…, Will Hayward, recent polls put support for Welsh independence at about 30%. Scotland polled similar numbers in 2007, increasing to 45% at the 2014 referendum.
However, the shape that independence might take is as yet undefined with many supporters, in actuality, aspiring to fundamental change and reform of the constitutional relationships among the four home nations.
There is a prevailing view that the UK unitary state is no longer fit for purpose.
England, which comprises 85% of the total UK population, still lacks a discrete national parliament, despite the devolution initiatives of the past quarter of a century.
Conflicts of interest
The situation is compounded by the role of the UK Prime Minister, who effectively doubles as the English First Minister. This introduces wide ranging conflicts of interest into decision-making, as illustrated by:
- The absence of Barnett consequentials for Wales and Scotland in tandem with the £1 billion given to Northern Ireland during 2017 in return for DUP support of Brexit. Frustratingly, the UK Government itself ruled that it had no case to answer when concerns were raised by the First Ministers of Wales and Scotland!
- The adverse impact of the post-Brexit UK Internal Market Act 2020 on the devolution arrangements.
- The classification of HS2 as an England and Wales project despite no track being laid in Wales, resulting in no additional Barnett funds allocated to the nation (unlike Northern Ireland and Scotland.)
The extent of the distrust between the institutions has increased to such an extent that a Government of Wales (Devolved Powers) Bill is presently progressing through the House of Lords to ensure that powers devolved to the Senedd cannot be amended or withdrawn by the UK Government, in the future, without a super-majority vote of elected members in Cardiff.
Similarly, supporters of independence believe Wales exists within an unequal relationship which leaves the nation chronically impoverished and unable to address the considerable problems it faces.
Too small, too poor?
For example, the Welsh workforce has a lower pay than the UK average. One in four people live in poverty, including one third of all children.
Anti-independence advocates view this as evidence that Wales is too poor to ‘go it alone’, whilst those in favour question whether Westminster is a good custodian of the nation’s interests. One could reasonably surmise that both interpretations are to a degree correct, especially after recent events in Downing Street.
It is argued that the £5bn which Wales should receive under a fair settlement for HS2, as touched on above, could finance a major transformation of the nation’s transport infrastructure to help bring people out of poverty over time. To some, this situation highlights the emptiness of the UK government’s levelling-up promise.
For others, any decision that leads to a hard trade border and restricted supply chains with England would be the greatest act of self-sabotage imaginable. They stress that 50% of the Welsh population live within 25 miles of our neighbour, and that the north-east of Wales is one of the most commuted-out-of areas in the UK.
The chapter focused on whether to retain the pound or introduce a new Welsh currency is particularly lively being aptly titled ‘Taking a Punt’, mirroring current debates in Scotland.
In Independent Nation: Should Wales Leave the UK?, Hayward asks whether an independent Wales could balance its books by selling water and electricity to England. No such luck. It would be far cheaper to extract the salt out of sea water in the English Channel than transport it from north Wales to the South-East. Further, a separate Wales-wide electricity grid does not exist and the cost of building one would be immeasurably prohibitive for a newly sovereign nation.
An economic opportunity is offered by tidal power. An independent Wales, advantageously situated on the Atlantic fringe, could invest with some confidence in becoming a centre of expertise and production of component parts for sea turbines and related technology globally. The same is true of wind energy.
However, Hayward suggests that supporting independence on the basis of securing improved wealth is an irrational position in the medium term. The chapter focused on whether to retain the pound or introduce a new Welsh currency is particularly lively being aptly titled ‘Taking a Punt’, mirroring current debates in Scotland.
The author states a strong case can be made on the point of instigating a more socially just society. He explores the various sorts of visions to which independence supporters aspire—socialist, enterprise-driven, republican etc.—provocatively querying what happens if on arrival at the much-vaunted Shangri-La it does not meet individuals’ personal expectations.
Similarly with the issue of EU membership on which many base their support. This destination could take up to twenty years for Wales to successfully navigate two referendums on becoming independent and joining Europe respectively, and to further complete the application process. With such time horizons in mind, is it not more expedient for pro-EU campaigners to make the case for reversing Brexit within a much-reformed UK?
On this point, my own response to the ongoing Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales discusses the ‘pros and cons’ of devolution, federalism, confederalism and a model in-between (i.e. confederal-federalism), which is highlighted by the author in the chapter ‘UK Reform: The Non-Binary Choice’.
Hayward is an insightful and talented writer and his latest work is an inspiration to all who are interested in the constitutional question. It is imperative that the debate is had on the basis of hard evidence and concrete proposals.
As he states when asked to respond to the question posed by the book’s title: ’I could be convinced but am not yet’.
He is not alone…
Independent Nation is published by Bite Back Publishing. Review first published by the Welsh Agenda
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