How would Wales fare in a post-independence negotiation with England?
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
Sometimes you can get a gauge of where an independence movement is at from what its critics say about it.
For example, in Scotland, unionists start crowing when a poll shows support for independence at 52 per cent instead of 58 per cent. If that is a cause for unionist celebration, then you know things are getting rather desperate in that camp.
In Wales, we are not quite as far along as that. However, we have reached the stage where the independence movement is no longer considered an irrelevance. Unionists are sitting up and paying attention. You might even say that they are a little bit spooked.
The independence movement has come a long way in a short amount of time, and one poll showed support for it at a record high at 33 per cent.
The “no one is interested in independence” line just won’t work anymore. Support is now at a higher level than it was in Scotland before their referendum.
However, unionists to have plenty of other anti-independence arguments lined up.
One worth analysing is from unionists who are pro-EU. They point out, quite rightly, that Brexit has shown that a smaller country leaving a larger block doesn’t always work out well for the smaller country.
Brexiteers can’t admit this of course, but the UK rolled over in many areas of the negotiation with the EU, simply because the EU is much bigger and stronger.
What makes us believe the same thing wouldn’t happen to Wales in a post-independence referendum negotiation with England? Could Wales be left worse of than the ‘deal’ that we have now?
But I think there are a number of key differences between the UK’s position within the EU and Wales’ position within the EU to consider.
One reason the UK struggled to hash out a good deal with the EU was that the deal it already had was difficult to improve upon. Wales isn’t in that position.
For one thing, the EU wasn’t the cause of the UK’s maladies. It was merely a convenient scapegoat. The way Westminster has misruled Wales has been incredibly damaging. Thatcherism and austerity are just a couple of examples. There are many more.
Under the current constitutional arrangement, Wales has to do as it is told. The leverage Wales has at present is practically zero. We have around five per cent of the MPs in the House of Commons and that is going to be cut down to even fewer.
The Welsh Government and the Senedd are routinely ignored. The Sewell convention is meaningless. With its power grab bill, Westminster is stealing the powers of the Senedd, that were voted for by Welsh people in two referendums and numerous elections.
Our lack of leverage within the UK means that Westminster can interfere in Welsh legislation at will. Brussels never had the authority to force its will on the Houses of Parliament without its say-so.
So, the idea that we could considerably worsen our lot by ditching Westminster can go in the bin. In order to lose power and leverage, you kind of need to have it in the first place. We do not.
Whatever we negotiated after independence it would, at the very least, give us a free rein to rule Wales in our own best interests. We would have control over our constitution. This change is not to be sniffed at.
In a negotiation, Wales would have fewer resources to trade than England. But we would have control of its resources in order to trade them, which is not currently the case.
However, there is the question of how much power England would continue to exert over us if we did leave the UK. Would we be bullied into accepting laws that we do not want by our larger neighbour, in exchange for trade access?
I don’t actually disagree that it could still be an asymmetric negotiation in some respects. England evidently has a much larger economy than Wales and it would be remiss not to acknowledge that it would not be reflected to at least some degree in a negotiation between the two nations.
But once again it seems unlikely that any asymmetry in power could leave us in a worse position than we’re in under the current constitutional arrangement. The present system isn’t one where Westminster power is checked or balanced. It’s designed to tip the scales away from Wales.
Therefore, if you consider the power England would consider to exert over Wales post-independence to be unsatisfactory, why would you accept the status quo in which our position is tantamount to a vassal state?
It’s clear that ‘absolute sovereignty’, as many Brexiteers imagine it, is a myth. Nations do pool sovereignty for mutual gain. However, Welsh sovereignty is not being ‘pooled’ with the rest of the UK as is the case in the EU, and indeed with all trade agreements. It is being held hostage.
Another factor to consider is that trade negotiations between two nations do not happen in a vacuum. England isn’t the only nation that would be throwing its weight around.
Wales could develop its own alliances in ways it is currently prevented from doing so by the Westminster establishment.
On the international stage we have seen how the UK has been consistently outmanoeuvred by Ireland. The old colonial relationship has been inverted. The UK caved on the border of the island of Ireland from a combination of pressure from two superpowers, the EU, and the United States.
In the US, Ireland has leveraged its diaspora as well as its diplomatic nous. It has a lot of friends on Capitol Hill and has one particularly important friend who will soon occupy the Oval Office. Joe Biden is incredibly proud of his Irish heritage. His secret service code name during the campaign was Celtic.
An independent Wales would not find itself in exactly the same situation as Ireland of course, but the example is still worth bearing in mind. England would be far from the biggest fish in the international pond.
Size, while not an irrelevant factor, is not the only one. After all, Iceland, a country with a population smaller than Cardiff, inflicted a humiliating defeat on the UK in the cod wars. Britannia, which had once ruled the waves, was forced to accept significant restrictions on where it fished.
This may seem like a wildly theoretical article, but at some point in the near future Wales is likely to have to rethink its relationship with England.
If Scotland leaves the UK, which looks increasingly likely, there won’t be a union to be a part of. At that point, Ireland would surely unite, and we would be faced with a post-independence negotiation with England anyway. That is unless if we wanted to live our lives as an appendage to Englandandwales.
When all is taken into consideration, preparing to negotiate with England for a fair post-independence settlement is surely only prudent. Why not buy a belt now instead of waiting to be caught with our pants down?
If we took control of our own laws would Westminster seek to undermine us more than it already is? Perhaps, but that would take some doing.
Access to the English market in return for giving up ultimate control of all our own laws, and where our own interests are constantly undermined, does not seem like a particularly fair trade to me. What self-respecting nation would accept such an unsatisfactory state of affairs?
Are we to resign ourselves to being bullied without putting up so much as a fight?