Opinion

Why it’s too early to hold a referendum on independence

26 Jan 2021 9 minutes Read
Lluniau gan / Pictures by Lluniau Lleucu

Simon Brooks

YesCymru deserves praise for the campaign it has run on indy Wales but a referendum within the next five years would inevitably end in defeat and runs the risk of leading to the abolition of the Senedd itself.

Support for independence in Wales is both low and soft. Opinion polls put the Yes vote on about 30% once you take out the don’t knows. This of course has been gradually rising, and there seems to be an assumption among nationalists that rather like climbing a hill the only way is up.

There is of course no empirical evidence for this whatsoever. Most political campaigns reach a ceiling of support where the reality of demographic interest groups kicks in. In Scotland, the ceiling seems to be at about 50-60%. This is why the SNP both favours a referendum but is also very careful about when and how this is done. To poll 49% would be the end of the campaign for Scottish independence. A third referendum would simply have no democratic credibility.

We do not know where the Welsh ceiling might be but I would be very surprised if it reaches beyond 35-40%. Worse still for supporters of Welsh independence, large sections of society have already been alienated and it will not be possible to turn around prejudices in a short campaign as we learnt in the Brexit vote.

Firstly, we have the right-wing vote in Wales. This moves between different parties and oscillates up and down. It comes to about 30-40% of the Welsh electorate, and we can put 90% of it down for the No vote. The national movement has spent the past 20 years attacking these voters as ‘bad people’ who are somehow not Welsh.

Then we have Brexiteers many of whom are not right-wing but are susceptible to populism. Some might be attracted by some of the more populist messages that YesCymru throws out. More likely however is that the Abolish the Assembly campaign gets stuck in here.

Then there are those who are Welsh but have a British identity. An argument could be made for Britishness from a Welsh perspective (‘Wales is the original British nation’ etc), but we are not making it. In fact we are dismissive of both the word and the concept. Are British-identifiers going to vote Yes? Some will, but most won’t. So we can throw that lot into the No camp too.

Then there is the small matter of England. About a quarter of the Welsh population was born there. Add to this those born in Wales with a parent from England, or those in Wales with relatives in England, or those who have themselves lived in England, and we are looking at a majority of the population. We must start to think of England as a partner and not as a problem. How then have nationalists dealt with this issue? I contest that they have done so badly.

Plan

All of these things could be turned around given time. Attitudes change. Nationalist movements create different types of messaging. The problem is that in the short term many of these fault lines have already been set down, and when you put British-identifiers, England-identifiers, right-wing voters and populists together they come to well over half the electorate. Of course, many from these groups will vote Yes. Some are dedicated Yes campaigners. But will they do so in sufficient numbers in order for Yes to win a referendum? Probably not.

In terms of using emotional appeal alone to win over the electorate, the Yes campaign is not in a good place. Welsh twitter is not the same as a town like Llandudno where every day is Sunday. The idea we could call a referendum and just breeze through by waving a few flags is for the birds.

But if we don’t have the emotive resonance perhaps we could win on the facts. Where do we stand on these?

Virtually no serious research has been done on how we are going to get through the first decade or so of independence. In the long term, the argument that we could flog water and wind has some appeal. We could have mass tourism and tax it to the hilt. A digital economy has some benefits for a country on the geographical periphery. In the long term, the Welsh electorate might give us the benefit of the doubt.

The problem we face is that there is no plan for the first ten years. Exposing this will be the core of the No campaign. Who is going to pay the pensions? Will the NHS be funded? What happens to the welfare state? What about our public sector workers? Will they be sacked or have their wages slashed? How are we going to balance the books?

Doubtless some will argue that we have the answers to these questions locked away in a back-room somewhere. Might I suggest we bring them out from among the family heirlooms and put them on proper display in the parlour. Unless we do so there will be panic among our pensioners and among those who depend on the state for support. Even middle-class Welsh-speaking teachers in Gwynedd will begin to have cold feet when they see their pension pot is about to disappear. Or when they are told that it is about to disappear which in the context of a referendum comes to the same thing.

To deal with this all, we need a priced, thought-out road map through the first ten years of independence that will reassure people that we are not about to become a coracle republic.

Purist

Part of the fiscal uncertainty is that we have no idea what sort of independence we want. Plaid Cymru’s Independence Commission report was unfairly maligned by many on social media, presumably because it is a cautious rather than populist document. It recommended a ‘prelim’ referendum, a referendum about what to ask in a referendum. That is to say a multi-choice referendum to decide on a favoured model of Welsh ‘sovereignty’ to go forward to a yea or nay run-off.

Why come up with such a convoluted decision-making process? The answer is that the grandees in charge of the Commission favour a British confederation. Under such a model, Wales would declare independence – hence regaining her sovereignty and undoing the shame of Conquest – before immediately pooling a range of powers with England. It would be a sort of Brythonic European Union on stilts. The appeal of this is obvious. At a stroke one deals with both the England and British issues that make winning a Yes vote so hard. A confederation would undoubtedly too offer a degree at least of financial stability during transition.

Such a confederation would clearly be the democratic choice of the Welsh people before the more purist version of an absolute break-away favoured by younger activists. But the nationalist movement if left to its own devices might end up putting the purist option on the ballot paper. Hence the Commission’s cunning plan of a pre-referendum referendum to make sure this can never happen. It is unfortunate that Plaid centrally have rejected this sensible idea of a doubled-headed referendum.

For on this the Commission is absolutely correct. An independent Wales outside the European Union and in an antagonistic relationship with England would truly be a national disaster. It would bring down on itself all the financial calamities of which the No campaign is bound to warn. The scale of rejection by the Welsh people in a referendum would be monumentally high.

Hermit state

And this debate takes place of course within a political environment in which abolitionists have moved onto the front foot via a coup in the Welsh Conservative Party. In the space of a few months, we have lost Nick Ramsay, Jonathan Morgan, Suzy Davies, David Melding, Paul Davies and Darren Millar. The pro-devolution wing of the Tory Party has been wiped out. Abolitionists wait in the Tory trenches with their guns trained on the nationalist cavalry.

This is a crucial moment in Welsh history. Ably helped by lieutenant general Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, Adam Price and Siôn Jobbins have led the indy movement to sunnier uplands than many could ever have imagined. I salute them both. But the time has come to take stock and consider seriously the best way forward. We need a proper debate about when to hold a referendum and in what circumstances.

As we have seen, the Yes campaign has a comparatively low and soft level of support which could well prove to be transient. No work has been done to reach out to those who identify with Britain or England, or who vote Conservative. Very little policy prep has been done. Fundamental questions remain about the fiscal gap. Nor are we facing weak opponents. The unionist campaign during a referendum will be relentless. It will be funded by donors in the shadows and the tabloid press will join in.

A referendum called at the wrong time will be a nationalist Charge of the Light Brigade. Perhaps it will be glorious. Perhaps poets will write about its glory. But surely the Welsh people have had enough of glorious defeats?

A defeat on a scale even worse than 1979 would lead inevitably to the collapse of the nationalist vote in the following election, and the probable victory of unionist populism in Cardiff Bay. That in turn could easily lead to the abolition of the Senedd putting the very existence of the Welsh nation in doubt.

All things considered, we do not need to hold a referendum in the next Senedd term. It is far too early. Furthermore, given the demographics of Wales we can only restore Welsh sovereignty if we fully understand from where it emerged, namely from within the Island of Britain.

An independent Wales working hand-in-hand with England within the context of a British confederation which we enter on a voluntary basis might command the support of a majority of the Welsh people. Put the idea of a hermit state on the ballot paper and there is only ever going to be one answer in a referendum.

And it won’t be Yes.

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