Can Wales afford to be independent? The question is can we afford not to be?
Rhys ab Owen MS
As the deadline approaches for my party’s submission of its evidence to the Independence Commission, and with one calendar month remaining until the public survey closes, I’ve been reflecting on the perceptible shift of Welsh Independence into mainstream conversation.
While for Plaid Cymru, this has always been a mainstream issue – indeed it’s the first stated aim in our constitution – there has been a noticeable increase in support within other parties.
Most notably Labour – presumably much to the dismay of the Unionist Drakeford. And there are many not affiliated to any political parties that are more than just a little Indy curious.
A recent YouGov poll showed that support for Welsh Independence had increased by 4% – that’s quite some shift in just a space of three months.
Shortly after, thousands marched for independence on the streets of Wrexham.
And many more have been having their say on the public survey on the constitutional future of Wales.
The Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, and the opportunity it presents to take the national conversation forward, tells us a very clear message that more and more people believe we can shape a better future for Wales through independence.
To gather evidence to submit to the Commission, Plaid Cymru held a series of grassroots events across our nation, hosted by Leanne Wood, for members and supporters of Plaid Cymru.
The clearest message we’ve had is that representation of Wales in the Westminster system is wholly inadequate. You only have to look at the fact that Wales has never – in democratic times – voted for a Conservative government, yet more often than not Wales has been ruled by the Conservatives.
This is about more than just which party is in charge, this is also about the fact that Wales is ruled by a party in another country, and that the system is no longer working for Wales.
The attacks on the welfare state by successive UK governments is seen as very negative, as is the fact that the Senedd does not have power to fully tackle these issues.
If Wales had its independence from the UK Government, then we’d have full control over welfare and the benefits system and would be able to stop the privatisation of the NHS – just one example cited in our grassroots sessions for how Independence could help us shape a better future for Wales.
Similarly, our survey responses suggest that, particularly in younger age groups, there is a strong belief that the current social justice system is not working.
There is an anomaly in Wales that the Senedd can create laws, but that Wales shares a legal jurisdiction with England. For Scotland, the justice system is fully devolved.
Soon into any discussions about Independence, the economy crops up.
As it should – financing Independence is one of the most important things to be able to demonstrate if we are to have a serious conversation about Independence with the Welsh public.
The Commission will almost certainly have to address this up front, but evidence from our feedback also suggests that not enough focus is put on the flip side to this: Namely, the financial risk to Wales of saying in the UK. We talk about the cost of Independence, but do we ever talk about the cost of the Union?
The unfairness of the current Barnett Formula is just one example, as is the fact that we do not have control over the Crown Estate, meaning all the profits from leasing offshore land to things like wind farms, disappears into the UK treasury, with 25% skimmed off the top for the Royal Family.
A recent example of the cost of staying in the Union is HS2 – that rail project we’ve dubbed ‘The Great Train Robbery’.
Because we do not control our rail infrastructure we receive no balancing increases in the Welsh block grant to compensate for hugely expensive projects such as HS2 which benefits only England and in this case is harmful to the Welsh economy.
Under the Barnett formula, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be entitled to a proportion of the HS2 costs. This means Wales will lose out by £250m a year while Scotland will benefit by £350m.
Over the lifetime of the project, it means £11 billion for Scotland but nothing for Wales.
A clear example of how Westminster is not working for Wales, and a clear example of the cost of the Union to Wales.
Despite this, the GDP of Wales is approximately £73bn (2018), which makes Wales the 70th richest country in the world.
The narrative is rightly being shifted from speculating about the cost of independence, to the cost of staying in this unequal union, and whether a better working relationship with our nearest neighbours could be forged if we first sought independence? And whether our GDP might increase?
Certainly without a central bank or the economic levers, we will never be able to address structural inequalities in Wales, and the key to these lies in Independence.
Wales cannot have a coherent social justice programme, ensure a preventive approach to crime, tackle issues of overcrowding in prisons, stop women prisoners being sent away, effectively deal with legal aid disappearing, and all the other problems with the legal system without the devolution of justice.
Nor can we ever hope to protect human rights if we stay in this Union, which is currently in the midst of discussions around withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights.
An independent Wales could have its own Bill of Rights to enshrine these into law.
Whatever the next steps taken by the Independence Commission, there is certainly food for thought.
Because for me, this is no longer simply about whether we can afford to be Independent – it’s whether we can afford not to be.
Rhys ab Owen MS is Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson on the constitution and justice and is Member of Senedd for South Wales Central
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.