I was delighted to see John Ball’s response to my recent article arguing that the best way forward for Wales in the medium term is to expand its devolved powers, since an independence referendum currently appears unwinnable. The national movement urgently needs a debate on strategy in the coming years.
After criticising my arguments, Ball concludes by pointing out the slow progress in expanding devolution since the Welsh assembly and government were set up. Boris Johnson will not want to yield any further powers, he implies. The only choice is between “continuing to live in a poor, decaying former colonial power governed by an incompetent elite” or a “dynamic” independent Wales.
I don’t disagree with Ball about the battle we will face to strengthen the structure of devolution; and I agree wholeheartedly about independence being the ideal aim for Wales. Where I differ from him is that I believe the people of this country are not yet ready for independence, so that if a referendum were held on the issue it would be lost by a big majority, thereby setting back Wales maybe for decades.
Ball chides me for citing an outdated opinion poll on independence. The 11% figure crept into the piece in a late edit, and I am well aware that recent polls have shown a quarter or more of respondents supporting independence. However, let us not forget the old adage that the only polls that count are those in which real votes are cast. The most recent Wales-wide elections, and the 2016 Brexit referendum, suggest we are starting from a very low base indeed. None of these indicated a slump in support for the union.
It is true that statistics can be a crude tool for building an argument. Clearly not all the 27% born outside Wales are likely to oppose independence, let alone be antipathetic to assertions of Wales’s distinctness. A fair few are in fact Welsh people who happened to be born beyond the border – like some members of my own family, all patriotically Welsh in the deepest sense. Others are English and are very sympathetic to our country; some have even taken a prominent role in nationalist politics, like the splendid Liz Savile Roberts MP. Joseff Gnagbo of Ivory Coast is an activist in Cymdeithas yr Iaith.
It would be delusional, though, to believe that a majority of that 27% non-Welsh-born element will back independence without a long, hard effort of persuasion. I am thinking of all the pensioners who move over the border to retire on the North Wales coast, or commuters to Bristol who buy a house in Chepstow or Newport because it is cheaper. It is understandable that they will feel an instinctive identification with the United Kingdom, whatever its faults.
Then there are all the Welsh people who still identify with Britain for various reasons. Residents of Monmouthshire or Powys will often feel closer to their neighbours in Herefordshire and Shropshire than to their compatriots in Gwynedd or the Valleys. Flintshire and the North Wales coast are closely linked with Merseyside, while South Pembrokeshire, south Gower and much of the Vale of Glamorgan have been speaking English for over 900 years. All these areas will likely identify as strongly unionist in any independence debate.
Those seeking independence for Wales are starting from a far lower base than their counterparts in Scotland. That country has a history of genuine statehood and has never lost its own distinct legal system. It was never conquered or merged with England, it joined the union as a separate and equal kingdom. This century has seen the emergence of a completely distinct Scottish politics. Wales has so much further to go just to get close to where Scotland is now.
The pandemic may prove to be a key stage in Wales’s progress towards much greater self-government. It has shown to many people here, perhaps as never before, that having our own government can make a real difference. As people gain experience of the benefits of autonomy, they will become more open to the idea of going all the way to independence.
In the end, the only real difference between John Ball and me is that he is an optimist, while I can see many pitfalls ahead. The argument between us is one I would love to lose! What we are debating here is strategy; and it is vital that we get our strategy right on the road to greater freedom for Wales.