Independence or assimilation? Wales is becoming more divided than ever – and that should worry us all
You know politicians are panicking when you start hearing the f-word. It has been on the lips of leaders in Cardiff and Westminster all week. Since reading The Sunday Times’ polling last weekend that showed the Scots wanted an independence referendum and would vote to leave the UK – as if the previous 19 polls showing the same result was not cause concern – unionists have sprung into action, trying to get themselves together while shouting that f-word over and over again in a hurried mess.
I’m talking about federalism, of course. Although I am sure the descriptors used in Downing Street’s Union Unit team meeting this week may have been slightly different. Boris Johnson’s visit to Scotland was a disaster, after all. Even Sir Keir Starmer’s strange endorsement of the prime minister’s visit could not conjure any sympathy; I suppose this can be explained by the fact that the Scottish people have almost forgotten that Labour exists. Another Keir is probably turning in his grave at that thought.
Nevertheless, Scotland is still very much in the minds of the Labour party. Without Scottish seats, Sir Keir won’t have any hope of walking into Downing Street at the next election. And this is where that f-word comes in.
Gordon Brown, the man who had thirteen years to alter the democratic structures of the country, has warned that the UK risks becoming a “failed state” without a federal system. Mark Drakeford, the pragmatic-turned-reluctant unionist, wants a “radical reform” of the UK too – inspired no doubt by Mick Antoniw’s radical federalism. On where Wales currently stands on the union, I am sure that the public would embrace further devolution of powers included within the ‘safety net’ of Westminster. That would subdue the divisions that I’ll explain shortly. Where do we sign-up to a federal UK?
Nowhere. That’s the problem. We can’t. Even the first minister has said that he cannot promise it to the electorate in May. But he will keep pushing the Conservative government to listen to Wales. That reflects our current standing on the UK stage and the flaws in the federal proposal. This is not to mention how federalism would be an unworkable and unwanted system for many in Middle England, as Matthew Parris articulated so well in yesterday’s pages of The Times. It is likely not enough for Scotland and the SNP, either. Let’s see how long it takes for both Labour and Conservative politicians to realise this.
It is worth dwelling on how Wales is in a particularly strange predicament. The Sunday Times’ polling showed that we are a pro-union nation. Nationalism is rising too, yet to reach the heights of the tide in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but significant, nonetheless. YesCymru membership has surged by 15,000 in the last year. Plaid Cymru, albeit rather prematurely, has pledged to hold an independence referendum in its first term of government (with no plan for what an independent Wales would look like). In any case, these developments show how far the debate has moved on in the last twelve months.
The caveat is that Wales is also experiencing anti-devolution sentiment at a degree not seen anywhere else across Britain, probably aside from the corridors of Whitehall. The fact that Abolish the Welsh Assembly are set to win at least a couple of seats in the Senedd and that this political undercurrent has engulfed the once pragmatic Welsh Conservative party is telling. History shows that Wales has always been devo-sceptic, especially its conservative voters. Yet the damning fact is that the last twenty years of devolution has not done anything to convert thousands to the cause across the nation.
So as Scotland and Northern Ireland both embrace the central constitutional question of the age, Wales squabbles about which side to lean toward. Blame could be left at the door Welsh Labour for cruising along in the Senedd, or indeed those nationalists who have yet to produce any imaginative case for an independent Wales. Let me emphasise: aside from the Independence Commission report, there is no plan. Simon Brooks has made the point that if a referendum were held today, the Yes campaign would almost certainly lose. This would, as a result, most likely attach us to a ‘United Kingdom of Wales and England’ for the remainder of this century.
For the growing contingent of Welsh nationalists, this would be an immense national catastrophe akin to the failure of Glyndwr’s rebellion. I am an Anglophile but even I see how this would be a national humiliation and practical disaster, leading to the assimilation of Wales into a larger neighbour. Yet for many Labour and Conservative voters – in addition to many of its MPs and MSs – it would be exactly the immediate preference, should Scotland leave the union. This captures the tension that is brewing under the surface of our politics today. This is only likely to grow in the next few months, leading to the division that has become a central element of the populist era we live in after Brexit and Trump.
In Wales, we are seeing moves to two very different ends of the political spectrum: one which seeks to bring about a new radical and so far undefined nation-state, and another which looks to destroy our political system altogether. In the end, it may mean that we are so divided that we are not able to move one way or another. With no unifying leader to chart our course, Wales looks set to stagger along and sit on its hands unless prompted otherwise by external events. It is a national failure waiting to happen.
One thought that has come to me is whether this dangerous stasis that stares down the barrel of the Welsh nation is more a product of history and the make-up of our national psyche rather than a consequence of current affairs. As the saying goes, you only need two Welsh people to start a debating society. And to quote one of Gerald of Wales’s most incisive comments of the Cymry, made over eight centuries ago: “If they would be inseparable they would be insuperable”. Alas, he was and still is right.
Whether Wales will choose independence, federalism or indeed a new union with its largest neighbour is a great unknown. We will not have to decide today, tomorrow, or likely this year. But we will have to decide eventually. Taking this decision, in the midst of growing division set to be exacerbated throughout this year, is what makes me fear for the future direction of Wales. If you care about our nation, it should worry you too.