The independence debate needs a dose of honesty – but it’s unlikely to come from inside the Senedd
Ifan Morgan Jones
Wednesday saw the Senedd debate independence for the first time as Plaid Cymru put forward a motion arguing that the right to call a referendum should reside in Wales, not Westminster.
Whether this was a historic occasion or not as Plaid Cymru claimed will probably depend on whether Wales’ independence movement goes on to achieve real constitutional change or fizzles out.
But while no doubt an important milestone within the movement what the debate did was largely to demonstrate that any constructive conversation on the subject of independence was likely to take place outside the Welsh parliament, rather than within it.
Plaid Cymru of course never expected to actually win the vote (which went 9 to 43 against them) as Labour were well aware that whatever the merits of the motion itself it would be interpreted as a vote of support for independence.
Rather, Wednesday’s vote was all about next May’s Senedd election. Plaid Cymru want to establish independence as a wedge issue, with them on the one side and all the other parties on the others.
This isn’t a bad strategy. It is of course how the SNP have come to completely dominate Scottish politics and how the Conservatives have come to dominate at Westminster – by making constitutional issues (Scottish independence, and Brexit) the key issues overriding all others.
There may only be 25% support for independence (although growing) in Wales at the moment, but that’s more than the 20% of the vote Plaid Cymru got at the 2016 Assembly election.
Taking a bit of that pro-indy vote from Labour could on paper be enough to flip seats such as Llanelli, Blaenau Gwent, Aberconwy, and Caerphilly in Plaid’s favour.
The cross-party YesCymru campaign, however, will perhaps be rather less keen to see Plaid Cymru attempt to take complete ownership of independence as an issue.
Unlike in Scotland the growth of the independence campaign on a party political level is complicated by there being something of a party political split between Wales’ languages and cultures.
Beyond the occasional breakthrough, Plaid Cymru have struggled to win outside Y Fro Gymraeg, party because of their close association with the Welsh language and cultural nationalism.
Welsh Labour meanwhile have for over 100 years dominated ‘Welsh Wales’, the mainly anglophone industrial and subsequently post-industrial communities of the south-east.
If it is to get over the line the independence movement may therefore require a large amount of support from people who will still feel that the Labour party is their natural home.
This is going to be a tough nut to crack because the independence campaign needs to be both cross-party and have political representation in the Senedd to get very far.
But what about the debate itself? I think Owen Donovan summed it up perfectly on the Senedd Home site when he said the following:
“Plaid got over-excited and tried to paint an independent Wales as an impressionist landscape – very colourful, but style over substance. Those opposed to independence were reduced to well-trodden fire and brimstone portents of eternal doom and denial. Labour tried to stay above it all by proposing vague reforms that, under the existing UK Constitution, will never happen.”
What Owen called “clash of the clichés” was largely, of course, a result of the fact that what exactly an independent Wales would look like is at the moment a very hazy picture.
And it is possible of course that the Welsh independence debate won’t ever get beyond this level of political discourse because there’s no real political incentive to do so.
The Yes campaign in Scotland went into great detail about what an independent Scotland could look like, and lost; the Leave campaign in 2016 emphasised a few vacuous slogans, and won.
Ultimately it is not the facts that would decide a Welsh independence referendum but emotion.
The No campaign will (if they have any sense) emphasise the emotional ties holding Britain together.
The Yes campaign will (if they have any sense) emphasise the divide between the people of Wales and an out-of-touch elite in Westminster.
The Welsh Conservatives’ graphic released during the debate claiming that Welsh independence would cost everyone £300 a month, with no suggestion of where this figure was plucked from, gives us fair warning of the kind of nonsense coming our way (from both sides) if a referendum is ever called.
But we don’t need to depend on party political politicians to lead this debate. Beyond the Senedd what the independence debate needs if it is to progress as an issue on a community and national level is a healthy dose of honesty on all sides about what it would mean.
The truth of the matter, of course, is that Wales could survive perfectly well as an independent state. The armageddon prophesied by the Conservatives would fail to materialise.
Of course, neither would it be the land of milk and honey promised by Plaid Cymru.
It’s perfectly possible that Welsh independence would make Wales richer in the long run. A small nation that can chart its own economic course can react more swiftly to global economic changes.
People point to Ireland and other small nation-state but of course, they have been independent for a long time and suffered plenty of economic turbulence along the way.
To keep up the Biblical metaphor, therefore, it is quite likely that anyone arguing for Welsh independence today will, like Moses, die before they reach the promised economic land – the point where independence would ‘pay off’ economically.
But the main argument for Welsh independence should not be that it would make Wales hugely richer but that it would make our government more responsive to the needs of the people of Wales, and therefore it could better use what wealth we do produce in order to ensure that as many people as possible in Wales lead happy and fulfilling lives.
But while Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives gave us two perhaps unrealistic extremes, the ‘middle ground’ point of view espoused by Labour was scarcely any more credible.
While at pains to emphasise that they are unhappy with the status quo, they also promised that Wales’ future lay in a reformed UK.
As it was when Remainers promised a ‘reformed EU’ before the 2016 referendum, such vague promises are really just signs that politicians are essentially happy with the status quo but need to promise something however indistinct to keep voters on board.
Reforming the UK has become a get-out clause for those who can’t really defend the status quo but don’t want to commit to independence.
As a researcher of the 19th-century Welsh press, one of the most dispiriting things about reading newspapers and magazines from that era is how little the debate about reforming the UK has moved on.
People like Lloyd George and reformers even earlier in the 19th century were having the same debates about abolishing the House of Lords and the advantages of a federal UK as we are today.
We are in many instances essentially parroting 150-year-old debates almost word for word. In that time Westminster has burned down and been rebuilt and is about ready to fall down again but constitutionally it has not shifted almost an inch.
Even if Scotland does go independent any change is likely to be conservative – a retrenchment of the old order in a new, smaller state. That has been the way of things for hundreds of years too as parts of the British Empire have periodically fallen or been lopped off.
The independence debate needs a dose of honesty. Part of that is supporters admitting independence won’t be a utopia, part of it is enemies admitting it could very well work without too much difficulty.
Part of it is also admitting that the UK isn’t suddenly just going to break the habit of hundreds of years are reinvent itself.
There’s no heaven or hell out there waiting for us, just a lot of difficult, marginal decisions that need to be made. But they are decisions that together could make people’s lives noticeably better, and that is ultimately what politics should be all about.