Review: Independent Nation – Should Wales leave the UK?
Ifan Morgan Jones
As in physics, it’s very difficult to study politics without influencing it in some way.
And although this book rarely strays from being a purely objective look at the constitutional options facing Wales, it’s also likely to have a significant impact on the debate itself.
As Huw Edwards notes in his foreword to this book, despite all the energy within the independence movement there hasn’t been much actual discussion of the nuts and bolts of what independence could look like.
The only place debate has really happened is within rival camps of the independence movement itself on social media, a medium which has essentially been designed to turn any discussion toxic.
In that context, this is a much-needed book. It’s a no-nonsense, hard-nosed look at the debate that should force everyone to raise their game and engage in the discussion in the same spirit.
Will’s writing style reflects that of his journalism – it is pared back. There are no flowery prose or Biblical metaphors. Not a word is wasted as the arguments are discussed in a matter-of-fact style.
And like all the best journalists, Will Hayward knows to put his best copy at the very start.
In that tradition, the most sobering chapter in the book is the second one in which he deals head-on with the challenge of how Wales could afford to become independent.
And it’s fair to say that the picture that he paints isn’t a pretty one.
For the Welsh independence movement, this book is a little bit like having a property surveyor around.
‘So, you want to move into this property,’ surveyor Hayward seems to say. ‘But you should know that at the moment you have damp in the kitchen, dry rot in the bedroom, no running water and bats in the attic.
‘If you really want to move out of your cramped UK flatshare and into this new, spacious, independent Wales, you need to sort out these problems first – or at least have a plan for doing so, or it will become a money pit that will cripple you financially for decades.’
One of the key strengths of the book is that this all comes across as helpful, constructive advice rather than as patronising towards Wales and Welshness as arguments against independence often do when articulated by unionist leaders.
In that regard, this book will hopefully serve as an extremely handy checklist for YesCymru and other branches of the movement of problems they need to face up to, have a plan for and solve.
Whether you support or oppose Welsh independence, this can only be a good thing as it will help develop thinking and hone arguments that could be used in a prospective debate.
The worst to reaction this book would be to become defensive and try to pretend the issues – both with independence and the status quo – do not exist at all.
Even if some in the independence movement may think they’re being exaggerated here, in any independence campaign they would be raised by those opposing independence, and need to be dealt with.
The strength, and sometimes weakness of the book, is that its methodology for the most part has been tens (if not hundreds) of interviews with prominent people arguing the case for independence.
Will Hayward is a fantastic journalist, in part because he’s so disarmingly affable, with a talent for getting people to open up and say things they may not have otherwise.
One of the most eye-popping moments in the book is when Alun Cairns admits that the promise of ‘not a penny less’ in EU funding for Wales was deliberately misleading.
It also means that one of the strongest chapters in the book is the first, where he absolutely rips to shreds the current devolution settlement and its inconsistencies and inequities in a way that we’re so used to seeing him do in the pages of the Western Mail.
After these first two chapters – and a later one about borders – you do get the impression however that Will Hayward has to an extent achieved much of what the book set out to say regarding independence itself and some of the chapters towards the middle of the book are slightly shorter and more tangential.
The one slightly weaker chapter is the one on the development of Welsh identity and nationalism. Unlike independence, a vast amount has been written on the nature of and development of Welsh nationalism and we only get a very quick meander through some quite general points here.
In this case, interviews are probably less useful (people are very bad at even noticing their own nationalism, let alone explaining it) and more time spent under a mountain of books and journal articles may have been of use if this chapter was ever going to add anything useful to the debate.
There are a few other notable gaps. Perhaps oddly for a journalist writing for the national newspaper for Wales, there is nothing in the ‘Journey to Indy’ chapter which discusses how to build a successful bid for independence on the importance of a strong national media, which the literature on nationalism generally agrees is particularly key.
But in the last two chapters before the conclusion, the book picks up speed again as Will Hayward changes tack again to discuss a third way between the dysfunctional devolution settlement and what he sees as extremely challenging economic conditions for independence.
He uses the last two chapters to discuss how Wales’ present situation within the union might be fixed, arguing that the choice between the status quo and independence is ‘not a binary’ one.
Here he very usefully interrogates the options for something between devolution and independence – home rule, federalism and the like.
Because of this, the book actually does quite a bit more than its title promises, discussing not just the possibilities and pitfalls of independence but the whole gamut of options in between.
This book sets out in its introduction to be a layman’s guide to the debate around Welsh independence, speaking to an audience beyond the usual Twitterati.
It certainly does that. Of course, whether it succeeds in getting them to pick up and read it in the first place is another matter.
More likely it will mostly be read by the “die-hard independence nationalists and politics geeks” he describes at the start.
But even as a fully paid-up member of this geeky club, I still found plenty here to enlighten and inform me.
If you’re pro or against independence, or somewhere in between, this book will give you plenty to chew on – some of it hard to swallow, but all of it very nourishing to our political public sphere.
Independent Nation: Should Wales leave the UK? costs £20 and can be pre-ordered now.
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