Welsh Independence?

This is written as a response to Bill Rowland’s post calling for Welsh independence:


I started writing this as a direct reply (first section), but ended up explaining why I disagree with almost all ‘independence’ campaigns (second section).

Direct comments on Bill’s piece:

First, Bill talks about his disillusionment with Labour. I agree with him that the Labour Party is in an appalling state right now, but most conservative voters would say the same about their party. In fact, I suspect almost everyone in the UK is discontent and disillusioned with the mainstream political parties; this isn’t an argument for Welsh independence. Addressing why the major political parties are failing and seeking a way to improve upon our current political condition is incredibly important, but solutions to this are important for every democracy. Running from this challenge by fragmenting into smaller more homogeneous groups is not a solution. I’m sure millions of people living in progressive American states such as California or Vermont are even more dismayed by who’s running their government, but this doesn’t mean they should be campaigning for independence from their union any more than Wales should be from ours.

Next, Bill lays out why Plaid Cymru’s policy positions on Brexit, on climate change, and on combatting the structural causes of poverty make the party so appealing. However, agreeing with these specific policy positions should not be tied to supporting them on Welsh independence. Sadiq Khan has signalled his ‘unequivocal support for remining in the EU’ and Caroline Lucas’ party places climate change ahead of everything else, but they wouldn’t ever call for an independent London or Brighton. They want to affect the direction of the entire UK, not just a limited sub-region (a point I’ll turn to later).

Bill rightly note that “there is nothing inevitable about the poverty Wales finds itself in”. But, there is nothing inevitable about the poverty Blackpool, Bolton or Peterborough find themselves in either. It’s not just Wales that’s been “let down by a series of successive governments”, almost everywhere outside of London and the home counties has suffered from chronic underinvestment. Should Yorkshire, Cornwall and East Anglia be calling for independence too?

Independence campaigns in general:

I’m now going to argue why I don’t support any independence campaigns. I view the fracturing and destabilisation of existing unions as inhibiting our ability to tackle the big challenges facing the world. When it comes to advancing humanity, trying to turn the wheel of a large ship (in the face of more inertia) is more important than turning the wheel of a small boat with little inertia.

In the EU referendum, why did the younger generation vote overwhelmingly in favour of remain? It wasn’t because younger people had a deeper understanding of the complexities of the EU-UK partnership than older people. It wasn’t because younger people are less prone to believing misleading promises written on buses. It was because younger people have more of an affinity for their European neighbours. Many young people travel to Europe regularly and they work, went to school or maybe went to University with Europeans. When they voted they remembered that a Spanish single parent struggles just as much as a British single parent; that millions of jobs were destroyed thanks to bankers’ greed in France and Sweden as well as in Wales and Scotland; and that politicians continue to neglect growing wealth inequalities in Germany and Poland just as much as our politicians neglect the growing economic divide everywhere in the United Kingdom. In 2016, young voters understood that whilst we should value the cultural differences between EU nations, our similarities are greater than our differences. They recognised that it was better to fight for progressive change from within the EU where changes can be scaled and benefit the struggling all over Europe, than retreat to our tiny islands and ignore the plight of other Europeans. 

The merit of independence movements in Scotland and Wales centres on this same question, how ought we view our neighbours? Currently, so much of world politics is consumed by division, xenophobia and isolationism. Surely Wales and Scotland don’t want to fuel and endorse these sentiments? Would a fractured world with smaller nations preserving just their own self-interests increase or decrease the chance that the world addresses the most pressing, complex, and cross-border problems it faces: climate change, poverty, inequality, refugees, cybersecurity, terrorism, automation etc? If we want societies everywhere to advance, the most important tools we have are communication and cooperation. We must view our neighbours as allies towards progress, not as competitors in a zero-sum game.

 Furthermore, if Wales becomes “completely renewable by 2035” that’s great, but it’s irrelevant if other countries around the world do not also change their behaviour. Albania, Iceland, Paraguay and Norway obtain almost all their electricity from renewable sources and, except Iceland, they each host populations comparable to or larger than Wales’. Do we hear from any of these countries on the world stage? Is Paraguay influencing the US’ or China’s climate policy? When there is a major humanitarian, economic or social crisis, does the world look to Norway for leadership?

Now, I can imagine the reader might be thinking that the UK’s position on the world stage is irrelevant if the UK government’s position is not the one that you agree with. For this, I have two replies. First, it is only by being part of a larger democracy that we can hope for our beliefs and movements for progressive change to be amplified to scale. In the early 1900’s, would it have been better for Welsh Women to have campaigned for independence first and then campaign for suffrage for the 1 million women in an independent Wales, or was it better that they sought allies from across the UK and collectively secured the vote for 22 million women throughout the union?

Second, we must have faith that democracy will, in time, aggregate preferences in the best way to advance progress. I don’t agree with many of our current government’s decisions. However, when Bill says that “there is nothing about [the conservative] party that [he] agrees with”, remember some conservative MPs are actually the most vocal remainers; Conservative MP Richard Benyon recently announced that he supported the school strike on climate change and proclaimed that “climate change is bigger than Brexit”; and not all conservative MPs endorsed the Universal Credit roll out. A potential Plaid Cymru voter agrees more with the Conservative party than with the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Syria or North Korea and shares a more similar worldview to May than to Trump or Xi Jinping.

Historically, populations have always been dissatisfied with their government’s decisions. This is why a government almost never increases their majority before face their next general election. However, if we take a macroscopic view of the history of our country (or world) then undoubtedly there has been progress in the direction I (we) would like. To paraphrase Stephen Pinker, “if you were to choose any moment in history to be alive, you would always choose today”. On almost every measure we ought to care about, the world has been steadily getting better. This is largely a result of science, reason and humanism, but it is also dependent on large political movements in significant democracies driving progress forward. Policy change in a large union can have a seismic impact and its tremors have the potential to affect the trajectories of other smaller nations too. 

Anyway, I’m glad that those like Bill are not afraid of campaigning for and championing some of the policy ideals that Plaid Cymru have put forward. However, I’d rather those with progressive views fight for and try to enact those within the entire United Kingdom. If someone has a cause they believe in, they should want to be part of a broader union so their policy change on this cause will improve the lives of as many people as possible.

I argue against any independence efforts because I want a world with more cooperation and conversation between nations and cultures rather than less; a world that recognises that people are more similar than dissimilar and so cares for more strangers rather than fewer; and a world which engages with and tackles the challenges facing it collectively rather than one which fractures and ignores the future.

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