Opinion

What the Welsh independence movement can learn from Brexit

31 Dec 2020 4 minutes Read
The second National March for Welsh Independence July 2019, Caernarfon, Gwynedd. Picture by Llywelyn2000 (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Ioan Phillips

As the UK tonight, after four years, ends its transition period and finally leaves the EU, it’s worth thinking about what the whole process – from winning the referendum to the subsequent negotiation – can tell us about the prospects for the Welsh independence movement.

Some YesCymru supporters would baulk at the suggestion that they have much, politically, in common with Brexiteers. But there are some parallels.

Boris Johnson claimed that his EU trade deal allows the UK to “control our laws and our national destiny”. This has been seized on by independence advocates, who claim Brexit – and its foundational premise of control – legitimises their arguments for leaving the UK.

It is hard to deny that nationalist thinking here has a simple logical lure. If leaving a union – one that supposedly hoards power and side-lines citizenry – is deemed acceptable and morally right, then so too is independence from another which does the very same.

Or, as the co-founder of Just Eat, David Buttress, said: “I would rather live with people that are responsible to us for us that we can change, than live with a parliament… we can barely influence”.

Support for this line of argument is growing. In just five years, backing for Welsh independence has nearly doubled – with the backlash against Westminster manifested in trends like the spike in Yes Cymru membership witnessed over the past year.

 

Challenges 

Given that the wider independence movement aims to reach out to the as-yet unconvinced, it would be foolish were the practical issues of independence overlooked.

As with Brexit, there would be some economic hit (something that the report produced by Plaid’s Independence Commission earlier this year – to its credit – acknowledged). The Anglo-Welsh border would also pose challenges – a situation that gains another layer of complexity if a post-independence Wales were to join the EU.

Before all that, Wales would have to negotiate its exit from the UK (or what was left of it, if we assuming Scotland leaves sooner rather than later).

Wales is – as Yes Cymru and myriad Nation contributors have stressed – neither too poor nor small to be independent. Yet in pure realpolitik terms, it would be smaller and poorer than the rump U.K. state with which it was trying to negotiate a divorce.

Brexit demonstrates that hard power still counts – and in this context, there are few incentives for a rump UK to offer “cakeist” terms. Then again, when appraising the England-Wales power balance in a hypothetical set of negotiations, Gareth Ceidiog Hughes astutely observes: “To lose power and leverage, you need to have it in the first place”.

Solutions

None of these issues, however, are insurmountable.

Certainly, Wales would be in a far better position economically than many of the European states that have gained independence since 1989. According to data from the World Bank’s development indicators, Welsh gross domestic product (GDP) is greater than that of Croatia, Cyprus, and Malta – all three of which are EU member states.

As for how best to go about divorce, the 1993 dissolution of Czechoslovakia – like the UK, a multinational state with common cultural, historical, and linguistic links – offers a prime example of an amicable separation.

Reflecting on this in 2014, the Slovakian sociologist, Olga Gyárfášová, noted: “The Czechs always used to complain that they were ‘paying’ for us and we used to complain that they were bossing us around. Now we trust each other more. We get on better than ever”. In this regard, independence could well be the catalyst for a more mature relationship between Westminster and Wales.

Vision

Although there is much mileage in the debate on Welsh independence, it is evident that the status quo is broken. Devolution – which was not designed to endure the stresses of an event like Brexit – cannot protect Wales’ interests, especially when confronted with a Westminster system whose instinctive modus operandi to centralise.

The challenge, then, for the independence movement in 2021 and beyond is to flesh out the case for an independent Wales. The notion of control is undoubtedly important in this – but even more so is defining how that control can be used to meaningfully better the lives of Welsh people.

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