Is it time for Welsh Liberal Democrats to start talking about independence?
This article was originally published here.
Is there a liberal case for an independent Cymru?
Listen to most Welsh Liberal Democrats and you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Ostensibly committed to a federal UK, Liberal Democrats in Wales (and even more so in Scotland ) often dismiss independence with an ill-disguised hostility. The independence movement is dismissed using language like “nationalists” and “separatists”; it’s a visceral opposition that sits a little uneasily with the Liberal history of support for national liberation movements abroad and Home Rule here.
Official Liberal Democrat policy is to support the creation of a federal UK, in which the constituent nations — or possibly, in the case of England, regions — have autonomy under the umbrella of a United Kingdom whose powers are limited by a written constitution. I’ve written about the issues arising from federalism elsewhere, but it is worth noting that the recent elections in Scotland and Wales suggest that the nations of the United Kingdom are moving further apart and looking ever less likely to reach a consensus on what powers might be reserved to Westminster.
The substantial Liberal Democrat objections to independence — other than the usual and now largely discredited claims that Wales is too small or poor to be independent — appear to be founded on two arguments, one ideological and one practical; ideological opposition to nationalism, and the need to avoid creating borders.
Independence and Nationalism
The first of these is crucially important. Liberalism has long defined itself in opposition to nationalism — to the idea that, as Elie Kedourie wrote in his classic study, the possession of a piece of territory confers on its inhabitants some unique and exclusive attributes. The fundamental ideal of Liberalism is that it is in the individual, not in any kind of collective identity, that political rights are located. There is no place in Liberal values — none whatsoever — for blood and soil.
But — and this cannot be emphasised strongly enough — independence is not the same thing as nationalism. Indeed, liberals have throughout their history made the case for national self-determination, using a much looser definition of nation as a group of people in a territory with a shared historical and cultural identity and clearly-defined borders. There is no reason — none whatsoever — why an independent Cymru should not be liberal, open, diverse, equal — a place in which people from the widest range of cultural identities, including those obviously who identify as culturally British or look back to English roots, should feel at home.
Indeed, that appears to be what most people who support independence want; and what Wales voted for in the most recent Senedd elections. Achieving that is not about the fact of independence, but about the kinds of choices we make as an independent nation. I am confident that Cymru is far more likely to make the right choices than a Westminster that is on an apparently unstoppable slide into a populist authoritarianism of the Right. But I want Liberals to be in that debate, making our distinctive contribution.
And if you are looking for egregious nationalism, it is not to the independence movements of Wales or Scotland that you should look, but to the failed state that is Boris Johnson’s Westminster, elected and sustained by English nationalism, and with an official Opposition whose only strategy appears to be to appease English nationalist opinion — most of all over Brexit, where it refuses to whisper a syllable of opposition to the Conservatives’ nationalist framing — for what it believes will be its electoral advantage. It is English nationalists in Westminster, not advocates of an independent Cymru, who seek to cover Government buildings in our capital city with hundred-foot flags.
Moreover, as a smaller nation (slightly below the median population of independent states), an independent Cymru has a strong vested interest in being a good citizen of the world. Unburdened by the cultural baggage of lost empire, and unblinkered by Westminster’s toxic relationship to its own past, Cymru — like Ireland before it — has the potential to become a respected part of the international community, looking outward and gaining influence and respect by our conduct and values today rather than alienating the international community by bloviating about who we once were. And I for one fervently hope that Gweriniaeth Cymru will become a member of the EU, sitting at Europe’s top table with real influence and soft power.
In fact, the irony for those who are exercised by the spectre of “nationalism” is that independence looks increasingly like the internationalist option for Cymru. It offers a way back into an international community that Westminster insults, whose rules it gratuitously breaks, and which sees the Union as a rogue state, comical if the decline were not so sad.
And, on a similar point, it cannot be emphasised too strongly that independence is not the same as Brexiters’ sovereignty. It is — or should be — about taking our place in a rule-based world and acknowledging our international responsibilities, not — as with the Westminster Brexiters — acting as if we were above international law. Independence is about facing your international responsibilities and understanding their importance, not about avoiding them.
Independence and borders
Second, on the issue of borders, Liberal Democrats argue that, especially now the UK is outside the EU, independence would inevitably mean hard borders. If Cymru simply broke away now, that is certainly true, and it would be wholly unacceptable. Thousands of people cross the border every day to work, to shop, to live. Of course nobody wants to see a hard border happen.
But would that be a necessary condition of independence? The point about independence is that it is a process. An independent Cymru would obviously have to have a relationship with England, and indeed independence can realistically only come about as part of a process of negotiation and agreement. Gweriniaeth Cymru will need international recognition, and that means an orderly and legal departure from the United Kingdom, in which open borders would need to be negotiated.
Is this a likely prospect? Westminster does not respect Cymru, and for all its talk of the benefits of Union is incapable of treating Cymru as an equal, or even — as in the case of replacing lost EU funding — interested in redeeming its commitments to us. Its Secretary of State in Wales is more interested in insulting and undermining the institutions of Welsh democracy than working with them.
However, Westminster politics is clearly unstable and in a state of crisis. The realities of Brexit are beginning to strike home, and Johnson is losing the cover that the pandemic has given him. And there does appear at the same time there is a growing popular support in England for jettisoning Wales and Scotland, a sense that we have become a burden on the English taxpayer. The crisis in Westminster politics engendered by Brexit is not close to playing itself out yet. Johnson is a populist whose political luck may just be running out, who may need to look to ever more egregious populism to save his political skin; and the political coalition that gave him his eighty-seat majority is essentially an English phenomenon. At what point does the English populist right conclude that the Union is no longer worth the candle? And, crucially, how will Scotland’s clear mandate for a new independence referendum, and the existential threat that Brexit poses to the Good Friday Agreement, play out in terms of the integrity of the United Kingdom? Politically things are very fluid indeed.
And there is a further deep irony. Liberal Democrat politicians who oppose independence compare it with Brexit, and point to the chaos that Brexit is undoubtedly causing: but, leaving aside the fact that in reality independence is the opposite of Brexit insofar as it is supported by a popular movement rather than being an elite project built on manipulating popular opinion, Brexit provides salutary lessons about ensuring that political processes are managed properly.
But if fears about nationalism and borders do not provide barriers to a liberal acceptance of independence, there are of course more positive reasons why independence is compatible with liberal thinking and values.
Independence and democracy
Chief among these is the simple fact that independence is about democracy. Westminster is increasingly abandoning democratic norms and with Starmer’s Labour essentially in the hands of that part of the Labour movement responsible for the most illiberal aspects of New Labour, there is little prospect of any serious opposition. Starmer himself appears to be wholly locked into the Tories’ Brexit framing — incapable or unwilling to challenge it, and failing to offer anything that could be described as leadership at all: as the great socialist thinker R H Tawney put it in his magisterial study of the post-Ramsay Macdonald Labour Party, to kick over an idol you need first to get up off your knees. Keir Starmer, serial waver of the Union Flag, Queen’s Counsel and Knight of the realm, appears locked in a perpetual deferential bow towards the mythology of Westminster. And without an opposition worthy of the name at Westminster, there is no prospect of change.
But even before the present Westminster government’s post-Brexit assault on the democratic process, there was an enormous democratic deficit in the way the United Kingdom works. Edward Said wrote that one of the aims of empire was the colonisation of normality — and we in Cymru have had the full dose of the narrative about Westminster as the Mother of Parliaments, the home of democracy and all the rest of it. But this is a Parliament that contains one House that, once hereditary, is now made up of 800 appointed legislators, with a few rump hereditaries and bishops — bishops — thrown in for good measure; and that situation has arisen after the half-hearted reforms of a Prime Minister who styled himself as a moderniser. Government — including, potentially, the declaration of war — is largely carried on through Royal Prerogative. It is centralised and secretive, and has always worked through informal networks of wealth and education. And, although Cymru has devolved Government, that devolution can be rolled back by Westminster fiat — indeed, the conventions that govern that relationship between Cymru and Westminster, Sewell and Barnett, have no statutory force and could be overturned by Westminster at the stroke of a pen.
In January this year, an attempt at a coup in the United States failed largely because the US Constitution — its creakiness the subject of countless undergraduate politics essays — ultimately held. As we are seeing today, when Westminster goes rogue, there is no constitutional protection. Least of all for us in Cymru and Scotland, who never voted for a Government that is a principally English political phenomenon.
Independence and federalism
Now liberals will argue that all of those problems could be solved by their own preferred solution of federalism. And it is undoubtedly true that the creation of a federal UK, with autonomy for the constituent parts of the UK guaranteed in law, would be the most fundamental reform of the British political system since 1066. It would, theoretically at least, be a vast improvement on the situation we face now.
But it still begs the question — why the United Kingdom? Why does power need to be vested in Westminster? There is no doubt that the separate nations of the UK, once independent, would need to work together and would need to create institutions to enable them to do that. Such institutions in fact already exist for Northern Ireland in the Good Friday agreement, one of whose first principles is that there should be no hard border with the Republic; it is increasingly looking like the rock on which Brexit will be broken. After more than two decades of devolution, surely the case no longer needs to be made for the capacity of Wales and Scotland to run their own affairs.
And, as I’ve written elsewhere, federalism requires agreement between Cymru, Scotland and England on constitutional arrangements — but perhaps the one clear lesson of the recent elections is that the politics of the constituent parts of the UK are steadily diverging: their politics and party structures increasingly different from one another.
And England, the largest part of the Union, shows no interest in federalism; indeed, as England dominates the existing arrangements, politically and economically, with an English nationalist Government installed in Westminster, why should it? Even within the Liberal Democrats, with their long-standing commitment to a federal UK, the English majority shows no sign of any commitment to, or even any real intellectual understanding of, the federal principle.
Ultimately, then, this is about democracy and self-determination. It is about whether we in Cymru, wherever in the world we originally hail from, can throw off the flummery of Westminster and take control of our own lives. Liberals traditionally have supported rights of self-determination, and the belief that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the people that are affected by them is a key tenet of modern liberalism. And, as Westminster increasingly abandons liberal and democratic norms, which seems a more likely route to a Liberal Cymru: independence, with our own, modern democratic institutions, or a root-and-branch reform of a failing Westminster run by an establishment that has a vast vested interest in preserving it, and with an official Opposition that has forgotten how to oppose?
Historically, political reform of Westminster has not been about enabling change, but preventing it; for all the rhetoric on the English left about people taking control, the history of Reform Acts, extensions of the franchise, and even devolution has been about conceding what is necessary to ensure that the real balance of power does not change — although they have not always succeeded in doing so. We can already see that spirit pervading some of the discourse around federalism — which seems to proceed from the question of what Westminster can give away, but not what is the minimum that Westminster needs to do. It does not seem to accept that the things we need to do to ensure a single market and open borders on this island could be achieved by voluntary agreements between sovereign states — even though, at a theoretical level, that is exactly what federalism appears to imply. The question we need to ask is what we absolutely need a Government in Westminster to do — what cannot be achieved by consent between nations. And the answer, ultimately, is nothing. It sometimes feels as if all that is standing between advocacy of federalism and acceptance of the case for independence is a lack of confidence.
And, at a practical level, which is more likely to be the choice that we, as Liberals, are likely to face in the foreseeable future — the opportunity to enact the theoretical abstraction that is federalism, or, in the fluid and uncertain situation we face, to have to decide where we stand on independence?
And, if the latter, then we need to think about what fits best with our values and philosophical base. Perhaps it’s more helpful to consider it away from the terms ‘independence’ and ‘federalism’. Do we think that the institutions of Westminster are worth sticking with, when we want fundamental change? We support greater devolution — our 2021 Senedd Manifesto called for devolution of policing, criminal justice, some aspects of social security, greater fiscal devolution. As a default, after two decades of devolution and following a pandemic in which our Government showed that, for all the constraints of devolution, we can do better than Westminster, should we be asking what powers should not be exercised in Cymru, rather than those that should be? What powers could not be exercised by an independent Cymru, and why not? Why should we not do the things that many smaller and indeed poorer states routinely do? Are we really lacking in some attributes that other small nations possess?
And above all, would we prefer to entrust the future of Cymru to a failing, increasingly illiberal and undemocratic Westminster, in which our voice is being systematically diminished, or to a new democracy which we could play our part in shaping, confident in our values of democracy, internationalism, equality and social justice? A Cymru without borders, and potentially back in Europe where we belong? A Cymru in which everyone, regardless of their background, but particularly English people (like me) who have made their home here can feel secure and comfortable in our new democracy? A Cymru in which we style ourselves as engaged citizens of today’s world, rather than hiding behind post-Imperial fantasies of sovereignty while an elite enriches itself at the expense of an increasingly impoverished society?
Ultimately, the reasons why we support federalism are not so very different from the case for independence; it is largely a case of taking that extra step and letting go, a matter of confidence, and — in the current constitutional fluidity of the Union — a matter of taking what may be our one opportunity to shape a future Cymru in the mould of Liberal ideals and values.
Independence and Liberalism
There is nothing inherently illiberal about independence. On the contrary, as Westminster descends into populist authoritarianism, an independent, democratic Cymru could be our last best hope of achieving a Liberal Cymru. And engagement in the process of winning independence and working to shape the institutions of the new Cymru may be the best hope for a revival of the liberal idea, once so dominant, in Cymru. After all, home rule runs through Welsh Liberalism’s DNA. And even if you argue that federalism offers theoretically the best outcome, you need to address the question of whether the circumstances that federalism requires — the convergence of three separate nations around an identical programme of political reform, when those nations are in such radically different political places — can be realised in practical terms. But the debate about independence is happening now, and the disintegration of Westminster democracy is happening now. It is practical, as much as theoretical, politics that means we need to address the debate around independence and where we stand.
Ultimately, all of us have layers of identity — including, for many people in Cymru, an emotional attachment to the idea of Britishness. All those who argue for independence have to understand, respect and recognise that, and explain that nobody — least of all a liberal advocate of an independent Cymru — is trying to undermine what people feel themselves to be. I suspect this essentially emotional hurdle may, for many Liberal Democrats, be the biggest single factor in their resistance to the idea of independence. A quarter of the population of Cymru (including me) was born outside Cymru. An independence movement that does not understand that has no right to succeed.
Obviously, none of this is easy. But as Westminster descends into what appears increasingly like irredeemable chaos, and in which the basic tenets of democratic government are being discarded by the day, we need to create a Cymru where people feel safe, and feel a sense of belonging: where they can freely live who they are.
And I believe that an acceptance by Liberals that independence is compatible with our values and aims, and engagement in the creation of Gweriniaeth Cymru if that is where we as a nation decide to go, is the right thing to do. I am not asking people to renounce overnight their long-held beliefs; but to understand that in the situation we face, today in 2021, as Westminster prepares to enact legislation that would incarcerate noisy protesters for a decade, or to make criticising the Government in the media an offence under the Official Secrets Act, or seeks to criminalise the rescue of desperate people from the English Channel, all in the name of the Will of the People, the creation of Gweriniaeth Cymru may be the best chance — perhaps the only chance we’ll get — to create a Liberal Cymru.