Is there a liberal case for Welsh independence?
Is there a liberal case for Welsh independence? Listen to some Welsh Liberal Democrats and you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise; committed to a federal UK, most Liberal Democrats in Wales subjugate the idea of independence to the impractical dream of federalism.
They argue (somewhat ludicrously in a European world of common travel areas and open borders) that independence would create hard borders and be unworkable; it would lead to economic chaos and instability; that what they describe as “nationalism” is inconsistent with liberal values. Many point to the undoubted chaos of Brexit, and argue that independence would just mean another round of divisive politics.
I am a Welsh Liberal Democrat and I believe that independence is not only wholly consistent with liberal values but, with Westminster slipping ever deeper into populist authoritarian illiberal chaos, it seems increasingly apparent that independence may be the best and perhaps only hope for liberalism in Cymru.
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 unique and exclusive attributes. The fundamental ideal of Liberalism is that political rights are located in individuals, not in any kind of collective identity. There is no place in Liberal values — none whatsoever — for the blood and soil nationalism of the Right.
But independence is not the same thing as nationalism. Throughout their history Liberals have 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.
Here in Cymru, Liberals played a huge historical role in establishing Welsh political identity. There is every reason why an independent Cymru can be a liberal, open, diverse, equal and rights-based society — 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 seems to me to be the kind of society that most supporters of independence want; one that contrasts with a Westminster mired in culture-war populism, and where the Official Opposition bizarrely repeats the mantras of the inter-war far Right – flag, work, family – in front of the Union Flag.
Like many people from across the Welsh political spectrum, I am proud that Cymru has declared itself a Nation of Sanctuary; the generosity and optimism embodied in that declaration seem inconceivable in Westminster.
At heart independence is about democracy. Westminster faces a deep and growing democratic deficit – especially in terms of the civil and democratic rights that Liberals hold dear. In the aftermath of Brexit, Westminster’s agenda is one of pulling power into the centre, and as such is deeply hostile to devolution.
It is impossible to ignore how the debate about the economics of independence has changed in the past few years. There is a growing sense of confidence – and indeed a growing evidence base – that an independent Cymru could thrive economically.
We can see how small democracies around the world outperform larger states economically; and we have also seen the post-Brexit economic chaos at Westminster, with a political consensus forming around renewed austerity.
We can see every day how the dead hand of the Treasury holds back economic autonomy and development in Cymru, whether in the gaming of the Barnett formula over HS2, to the withholding of the Crown Estates, to the ways in which Westminster stops us from becoming the renewable energy powerhouse we ought to be.
Could federalism – long the Liberal Democrat preferred approach – address these problems? There is the obvious problem of the difference in size and power between the parts of a federal UK. More fundamentally, while sovereignty remains at Westminster, a federation cannot not provide real autonomy.
Liberals argue for a federal constitution that is enforceable at law – but how can that happen when that constitution can be eradicated by a vote in Westminster? And can a system in which Parliament cannot bind its successors ever vote away that power?
I believe that, after independence, the nations of the former UK will need to work closely together. As a Liberal, I cannot accept any outcome that imposes hard borders within the UK. But I believe that the only arrangement that can work is one between independent states who agree, on a voluntary basis, to pool their sovereignty towards clearly-defined ends set out in binding treaties. In other words, an agreement between equals.
And as a liberal internationalist – and a passionate European – I believe an independent Cymru, as a young, outward-looking democracy, respectful of international law and taking its place in the international institutions, would come far closer to the Liberal ideal than the post-Imperial exceptionalism of a United Kingdom that remains a prisoner of its past.
There is nothing inherently illiberal about independence. On the contrary, as Westminster descends into populist authoritarianism, an independent, democratic Cymru could be our one hope of achieving a Liberal Cymru.
I hope that – acting in what I believe to be the spirit of our Welsh Liberal tradition – we will have the courage and confidence to be part of that future; to play our part in the movement that wins independence for Cymru and shapes our new democracy.
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