There’s nothing inevitable about Welsh independence under Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson. Picture by Annika Haas (CC BY 2.0)

Ifan Morgan Jones

The most popular hot take on the long-expected news that Boris Johnson has won the Tory leadership contest and will be our next Prime Minister is that the break-up of the UK is now ‘inevitable’.

Scotland will go its own way, Ireland will unite and Wales, facing the intolerable prospect of becoming little more than a pimple on England’s rear-end, will also choose independence.

Even Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price was confidently predicting this week that with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister independence was a matter of “when” rather than “if”.

I understand why this is done. If independence seems ‘inevitable’ a lot of people who have never seriously considered it will, for the first time, treat it as one of the options of the constitutional menu.

However, the danger with this kind of thinking is that supporters of independence simply rest on their oars and expect a current to take hold and bear them ceaselessly towards their goal.

But it’s very choppy water out there and they would just as easily find their boat shattered on some rocks as they would of reaching the far shore of independence.

The reality is that even Scottish independence, the most likely scenario to play out, is far from being a done deal. I would say that it’s about 50 / 50 at the moment.

This is because Westminster has finally woken up to the fact that giving nations more powers doesn’t kill nationalism but rather empowers them to take control of their own future.

Why it’s taken them 20 years to wake up to this fact is for historians to ponder over. But tactics are now changing and the ‘slippery slope’ of devolution will quickly become something more akin to a wall of ice that will need to be climbed.

The UK is in transition between a neoliberal age, where ‘national sovereignty’ seemed like a rather twee concept in the fact of transatlantic corporations, to a one of far-right nationalism.

A similar period took place in the 20s and 30s of the last century, when ‘radical conservatism’ arose across Europe as a backlash to a laissez-faire liberalism that had, some thought, gone too far in breaking down the barriers between nation-states.

It is rather ironic perhaps that Welsh and Scottish national identity made the greatest strides when national identity wasn’t considered particularly important, and that they will face their biggest backlash when national identity is reasserting itself.

But it is, of course, the dominant national identity of the larger nation-states – such as the UK and USA – that is reasserting itself and clamping down on nations within and in their sphere of influence.

Both candidates for the Tory leadership have already made it quite clear that they wouldn’t be giving Scotland an inch in its quest for independence.

Given that Westminster retains absolute power over devolution there is nothing legally to stop them quashing it. And after what has happened in Catalonia, and considering the UK’s political trajectory, would anyone really be surprised to see troops on the streets at some point?

Realistic

On Saturday Caernarfon will host Wales’ second march for independence and the thousands in attandance will no doubt feel that Welsh independence is inevitable.

The speakers at the event will no doubt feed that sense of momentum that has pervaded the movement all year.

However, everyone in attendance needs to understand that this is the easy bit – they are in for the fight of their lives.

In fact, I would consider it slightly more likely that Welsh self-government is scrapped altogether within the next twenty years than it is that Wales will become an independent country.

I don’t want to throw cold water over the idea of Welsh independence. It can happen, and will happen if people fight for it.

But it needs to do two things – one an intellectual exercise and the other one of sheer effort.

First, it needs to succeed in portraying Welsh independence as a realistic and desirable material and cultural goal for over 50% of the population of Wales.

Independence movements succeed when they manage to yoke the aspirations of the middle class and the working class. You need both to reach that goal.

A lot of the people who are needed to win a Welsh independence referendum are the working class, non-Welsh speakers in the south-east of Wales.

Appealing to this demographic would mean portraying Welsh independence as primarily a means of solving problems of economic inequality.

This might seem easy given the massive regional economic inequality between Wales and London, austerity, and no foreseeable end to Conservative rule. And yet it hasn’t been done.

It would also mean convincing them that independence is not just a means of advancement for a primarily Welsh-speaking middle-class. Many remain unconvinced.

The need to fight Brexit – which would plunge Wales even further into the economic doldrums – also means that large parts of the movement has so far largely set itself in political opposition to many of those it needs to win over on these issues.

As far as I can see there is no easy solution to that problem beyond hoping that Brexit, as a political issue, resolves itself in the near future.

The second challenge of forming a pro-independence message will be communicating that message to the people of Wales.

In a nation bereft of any real national media, where the nation newspaper sells 13,000 copies, that will be very far from easy.

They can’t depend on winning the air war. It will take an army of volunteers manually delivering leaflets and knocking on doors across Wales, and a much busier self-financed volunteer-run media to get the message across online.

Progress has been made on all these fronts but there is no doubt that much more needs to be done. Contrary to the assertion that we are on cruise control, the independence movement as a whole is just moving out of first gear.

Hard work

Saturday’s march in Caernarfon will no doubt be a great boost to the independence movement.

However, amid all the feel-good vibes it will have to be remembered that holding an independence march in Wales’ Welsh-speaking cultural capital is much like taking coal to Flint.

It will be an important step and will continue the momentum that is so important in bringing people across Wales on board with the independence movement.

However, I hope it will inspire people to greater effort elsewhere and that they do not hear the message that Welsh independence is now ‘inevitable’.

‘Possible’ – yes. But we also need a hard-headed realism about where we are and where we need to go.

Boris Johnson or no, it’s going to take an awful lot of hard work and that burden will fall on the shoulders of each of the 3,000 in attendance – and many more beyond.

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