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Opinion

Is there a liberal case for Welsh independence?

21 Oct 2023 5 minute read
The March for Independence in Bangor last month

Neil Schofield-Hughes

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.

Nationalism

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.

Democracy 

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.

Federalism 

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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Richard
Richard
7 months ago

If there are to be open borders between an independent Cymru and England, then Cymru could only rejoin the EU and even the single market and customs union if England did so too, otherwise border checks of some kind would be unavoidable. Similarly Cymru would have to go along with whatever trade deals England agreed with other countries, without having any say in them, which would of course beg the question of how “independent” we’d really be in such a situation. Also even if the most optimistic economic predictions of independence supporters were realised (and I am not saying that… Read more »

Riki
Riki
7 months ago
Reply to  Richard

No, keeping sterling would fine as the term British is currently applied to it. Wales is thee Only British founded country. So it should fall upon England to change their currency, not Wales.

Annibendod
Annibendod
7 months ago
Reply to  Richard

Elements of what you have written is fair comment but taken as a whole, it is a well worn narrative and it is a narrative that excludes many constitutional alternatives as it seeks to place Welsh Statehood in a negative light. There is no negative to democratic statehood – there are however negatives to poor governments. Of course, this precisely what Wales has experienced with respect to itself both from Cardiff more recently and from London for decades on end. At the height of the industrial economy, Wales’ economy grew as one of its core components, our GDP per Capita… Read more »

Richard E
Richard E
7 months ago
Reply to  Richard

Fedralism only works with equality and respect through federal structures. Works well in Germany and of course Switzerland where they use confedralism. However if you look at Spain or Italy the different areas “ enjoy “ very different powers and monies. The “ problem “ is not Wales or Scotland but England ……where it would only work if structured regionaly or in city zones. Areas like the North East , Yorkshire and indeed Cumbria enjoy “ region identity but no where else perhaps excluding London.

Annibendod
Annibendod
7 months ago
Reply to  Richard E

What I am suggesting is more akin to a mini-EU than a Switzerland. Your reply suggest that there is a deficit of equality/respect within the UK … Has the penny dropped?

Last edited 7 months ago by Annibendod
Welbru
Welbru
7 months ago
Reply to  Richard

Look at Norway. Open border with Sweden, but not in the EU.

Richard
Richard
7 months ago
Reply to  Welbru

But Norway is in the European Economic Area (which means that they have unfettered trade with the EU) If England post independence for Cymru were to join that then an open border between a Cymru that was in the EU might be possible but not if England only had a “bare bones” free trade deal with the EU as is currently the case with the UK.

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
7 months ago

Is there a liberal case for Welsh independence? Unlikely seeing they are political transients who willingly adopt the extreme ideology of others as seen with their coalition with David Cameron Conservative party in 2010. And less we forget. Not only did the Liberal Democrats link arms with the Tories, Labour, Brexit & Ukip party to stop Scottish independence, they are forever entwined with their political twin sister , the Conservative party, as both were born from the same mother , the Whigs before spitting into two rival factions. So to answer the question. Is there a liberal case for independence?.… Read more »

CapM
CapM
6 months ago
Reply to  Y Cymro

The Unionist Liberal Party is one thing. A Liberal who advocates independence is another.

Annibendod
Annibendod
7 months ago

Darn go dda gyda llaw Neil. There is no Liberal, no Conservative, No Socialist or Social Democratic case against Welsh Statehood whatsoever. There is only “Unionism” – an inherently right wing creed aka “British Nationalism” born of British Imperialism – a highly damaging and hugely outdated world view and dogmatic ideology. I support Welsh democracy in an internationalist framework relative to our British and European neighbours.

Dr Andrew Potts
Dr Andrew Potts
7 months ago

Interesting poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies Latest Welsh Westminster, Senedd & Independence Referendum Voting Intention (14-15 October 2023) – Redfield & Wilton Strategies (redfieldandwiltonstrategies.com) which shows that, amongst other things, if there was a referendum tomorrow 59% would vote against independence versus 31% in favour.

Annibendod
Annibendod
7 months ago

I wonder how many would vote for constitutional reforms of various hues?

Steve A Duggan
Steve A Duggan
7 months ago

I agree with the article. I was once a Liberal democrat councillor, as I have deep liberal values but now I support Plaid. I left as I disagree with the federal policy, it will do Wales no good, it will not address the poverty or inequality we see. Any connection to Westminster will just see our predicament continue.

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