Opportunities for dramatic change arise rarely for any country. But now is such a time. If we can learn something from the pandemic ripping out the hearts of our communities, decimating our elderly people, overworking our nurses and doctors both doing their best to care for and protect us, that would be a positive. There is much to learn.
The virus, like the referendum and the election, has revealed much more about us and our country than any politician’s speech or angry tweet.
From our collective slumber, some new and reborn thinking has surfaced over the last few years – independence! Annibyniaeth! We’re not quite sure what it means yet, whether it would be truly disruptive or merely permit continued rule by another albeit Welsh elite. There are many questions for the people of Cymru, especially for the young from whom the energy for change will have to come.
The current power structure, purportedly devolved but emasculated by predatory UK governments with the connivance of our local Unionists from its inception, is tired, short of ideas and relevance. Their failure to ensure even no hungry child condemns their principles and policies as inadequate and callous. Their time is passing and must end.
The need for change is apparent, but we appear to lack the tools. Our democracy has only blunt weapons, perhaps designed to avoid change (I recently offered an alternative). Our unrepresentative politicians infuriate us with their self-interestedness and narrow pursuit of party advantage. A sclerotic top-down governance regime dominated by another jurisdiction across the border, a preoccupation with trivia, point-scoring and shallow solutions, a media compromised by its foreign ownership – all are far adrift from the needs of the people of Cymru.
Not only the hungry ones, but the poorly housed, the under-educated and under-employed, those trying to survive on inadequate wages, benefits and pensions… and especially women, children, members of minority ethnic and migrant groups, disabled people… together a majority!
Is there really a chance for change? To this witness living here for the past fifteen years and deeply enamoured of my new home, an existential crisis for Cymru is on the horizon. And if we are given the choice, we might well choose to do more than simply rearrange the deckchairs. Both moderate and radical voices among the young in Undod, YesCymru, IndyLabour, Extinction Rebellion and Plaid Ifanc are saying enough!
Their objectives are relatively conservative and simple – peace, environmental enhancement, equity, compassion. All within the traditions of Welsh society in a way that the moneygrubbery of late-capitalism is not. Will they prevail?
Broadly, I perceive three constitutional options ahead for us. The first option is the status quo, that Wales remains as part of the UK. To achieve this, we need do nothing.
It is clear that powers being taken back from Brussels will not be devolved, and certainly any financial benefit or control will not be repatriated. Without the illusory Brexit dividend, that would leave us at the mercy of Westminster and Whitehall and their push-me-pull-you game of devolution, as the internal trade bill makes clear. More likely would be a reversal of what devolution we have, with Senedd Cymru slowly downgraded and even abolished as functions are devolved to a lower tier including cross-border councils (eg. ‘Greater Bristol’).
There would be increased settlement, primarily but not exclusively from England, and more holiday homes, further diluting our ‘Welshness’. We should anticipate a major takeover of Welsh resources and assets, especially of land and water, by external interests, and continued participation in UK military activities, with increased internal surveillance and reduced protections for human rights.
Social breakdown borne of central government neglect, deprivation, low wages and pensions would concern our genuinely sympathetic middle class, and our hard-pressed and under-financed government agencies and charities. There would be continued exploitation of all workers, obvious punishment for low productivity.
Some councils would become uninterested in Cymraeg, the language would retreat to small enclaves and become a hobby interest. Our Cymrian heritage would be marginalised and our country would become more British. The result would probably be for Wales to be fully absorbed into Greater England within 20 – 30 years, an outcome we can call NIXIT. There would of course be no border.
The second option is that Wales makes a weak exit from the UK, that is, independence in name only, a WEXIT.
Our sovereignty would be limited (as indeed it is for many countries, usually by consent). A soft border would effectively allow the rUK Government to determine our immigration policy, drugs policy, penal policy, transport policy and much else. Seeking good relations with and placating our large neighbour, Cymru would probably choose to retain the pound in some form of sterlingisation, ceding control of our financial sector to the City and the Bank of England.
Our interdependence with the rUK economy would be reinforced. Reassurance for our business community and foreign investors would be prioritised. GDP and The Economy would continue to reign supreme.
A straight-jacket would be imposed by the apparent need to maintain similar trading and political relationships to that of the rUK. Federal Britain could prove to be a useful and teasing distraction (like devolution appears to have been), unlikely though it is to eventuate as Hughes points out. Re-joining the EU (requiring a hard border) would never be an option except at Westminster’s behest. A separate diplomatic presence abroad would be deemed unaffordable and unnecessary. The Union Flag would continue to fly.
Internal governance arrangements would continue, with some tinkering with electoral reform that would not be permitted to undermine Cardiff’s internal hegemony or its generally pro-unionist slant. Big Government, Big Cardiff and Big Business would find a common cause.
We should note that very few independence advocates currently propose major changes to the economy. Thus, neo-liberal capitalism would remain central, with the inevitable wealth/poverty splits. Life for the underclass that our political economy has created would continue as a struggle – marginal employment, debt, poor housing, low life expectancy. Continued poor and unimaginative economic management would cause more poverty and homelessness, and more violence, though owners and rentiers would probably not suffer.
For most then, independence may mean very little. Indeed, independence offered on an unambitious prospectus of little change may induce limited enthusiasm and eventually manage to achieve only a bare majority. A new government would obviously then not have a mandate for much more than keeping the ship afloat. Perhaps not a good start for a new state…
So while Cymru may be independent in name at least, its chances of enhancing our unique identity and a distinct society would be severely hamstrung by its restricted sovereignty. With a weak economy, depleted resources, fractious politics and without a clear direction, the country would flounder. The loss of identity may be slowed but would continue. Cymru could well become culturally indistinguishable from, and re-integrated within England within 50 – 60 years.
The third alternative is that Wales makes a strong exit from the UK, a SEXIT.
As will be apparent from the above, a mandate for radical change would require a large majority in an independence referendum. Before readers scoff that that degree of unanimity would be impossible to generate in Wales, a YouGov poll for the Royal Society of Arts reported that 85% want to see some of the personal or social changes they have experienced continue afterwards, whilst just 9% want everything to go back to how it was before the pandemic.
It should not be beyond the wit of the many Welsh people who support a range of radical groups (some listed above) to devise a programme for change that could have widespread popular support. There is certainly an appetite for significant change, and we should not waste the triple crises (cf Churchill) of coronavirus, imminent economic depression and climate change by reaffirming old ways that have clearly failed to meet the needs of all.
We may not have a better time than now and over the next few years to stand up and resist the continuing encroachment by the UK Government on our liberty, our culture and our identity. If that is the case, we must seize this opportunity and plan for substantial change.
While we may regard, as I do, the Brexit gambit as utterly foolish and counter-productive, we should learn from the UK Government’s stance in their pseudo negotiations with the EU. The UK Government is prioritising the recovery of its full sovereignty. This is a good example, which Scotland would be wise (and is becoming more likely) to follow. When the time comes, Cymru must do the same. Negotiations should be limited (Rideout proposes seven issues for Scotland), with international mediation if necessary. Future cooperation should not be ruled out, but only as equal partners, and only after we have got our shit together.
The prospects for an independent and sovereign Wales are excellent, but only if we were to be clever about it.
The long-term integrity of our culture and society will depend on us establishing sound and resilient institutions that provide sophisticated, democratic and caring governance while at the same time respecting the liberty of the people and avoiding the attentions of an overbearing neighbour.
The first priority must be to reform our democratic structures to benefit all people and communities equitably, with electronic voting and referenda encouraging participation. Second, we should establish hard borders and recognise the contribution they would make to the fostering of our national identity and the protection of our society, our languages and our economy. Third, as a sovereign country able to issue and manage our own currency and to utilise the advantages of Modern Monetary Theory, we would ensure that the economy works for us, not the other way around.
Fourth, we should develop our own path to sustainability, self-sufficiency and well-being, while becoming a country of sanctuary, compassion and peace. Fifth, we must regain ownership of our assets and resources, and employ them in the pursuit of the public good. Sixth, we must offer lifelong safety, security and opportunity to all the people of Cymru with comprehensive fitness/health/care regimes, quality food, comfortable housing, and access to lifelong education. Seventh, we should develop an international outreach, focusing on skills transfer, advancing diplomacy in support of a peaceful, non-nuclear world and eschewing military alliances.
Eighth, and most importantly and urgently, we need to develop an enhanced reverence for all living things and for the natural world, adding any knowledge and wisdom we may individually and collectively have to assist in combatting climate change.
In conclusion, in our struggle for independence, we need to be especially careful what we wish for. Staying as we are, a remote province of London, we would remain trapped in the chauvinism, pretensions and insularity of English Tory regimes and condemned to the fringes of prosperity.
Independence should therefore be a no-brainer. But would it be a meaningless independence, without full sovereignty and continuing a close association with a country and political culture that has done little for us?
Or would it be a full-blooded, full-throated assertion of our nationhood, cruelly usurped for 600 years?
We, the people of our time, may soon have a choice that would bind the future of Cymru irrevocably. What would you choose?
What would Owain Glyndŵr do?