Why we should focus on winning the fight for more autonomy, not independence – for now

Welsh flag painted hand giving the thumbs up

Peter Jones

The recent debate in the Senedd on holding an independence referendum highlighted the growing salience of the issue in Welsh politics. Support for, or at least interest in, independence is growing.

What could be more understandable, given the incoherence and incompetence of the UK government’s handling of the pandemic crisis? Which believer in our country’s distinctness could not be envious of the Republic of Ireland’s freedom from the claws of London control?

And yet the momentum for independence is full of potential dangers for Wales – and not only from the campaign to abolish the Senedd altogether.

In fact, that element in our politics illustrates the ambivalence – perhaps fatal – about Welsh identity that makes an independence referendum currently almost unwinnable. In Scotland, any voices calling for the abolition of their Parliament are so insignificant as to be inaudible. In effect, no one in Scotland questions its right to self-rule, so there is no danger of a call to rescind it gaining traction.

By contrast the idea of self-rule in Wales has to be constantly justified. The institutions of Welsh statehood, and the very notion of self-government here, are very new, with their roots still only shallow. Besides, Wales is enmeshed with England to a degree that just isn’t true of Scotland or Northern Ireland – a consequence of geography, history, economics and demography, leading to identity in Wales being a particularly complex issue for such a small country.

The 2011 census showed that 27 per cent (837,000) of Wales’s population was born outside the country. Out of the total population, 57.5 per cent gave their sole national identity as Welsh – a further 7.1 per cent indicated it to be both Welsh and British. No Welsh identity was declared by 34.1 per cent –  16.9 per cent identified themselves as British only and 13.8 per cent gave English or English with another national identity.

In Scotland less than 17 per cent were born outside the country (England registered a similar proportion); 62 per cent considered themselves solely Scottish, while only 18 per cent indicated no Scottish identity.

In short, a strikingly high proportion of Wales’s population was born outside the country, and a substantial element does not declare any Welsh identity. Such factors will not help the campaign for independence.

If you accept that it is unlikely that people who do not identify as Welsh in any way are unlikely to vote for Welsh independence, the potential pool of support is around 20 percent smaller than in Scotland.

 

Campaign

But the problem in Wales is not a lack of patriotism – the widespread visibility of the national flag, and the passion for our rugby and football teams, demonstrate that. The issue is what seems to be a particularly Welsh phenomenon, apolitical patriotism. Pride in our identity does not translate into a distinct political culture, except in the Welsh-speaking areas in the west.

Perhaps we should not be so surprised, given that large swathes of the country have been controlled from England for twice as long as they were ever under Welsh rule. Those regions also happen to contain by far the majority of Wales’s population.

All this translates into election results that repeatedly show most of Wales currently seems to be barren land for the seeds of independence. The narrow majority for Brexit in the 2016 referendum backed this up. Outside the Welsh-speaking west, our politics are essentially indistinguishable from those of England.

No other region at present appears remotely likely to back independence, not even the staunchly Welsh Valleys; all have to be weaned off a solid unionism. This will take time and very well thought out campaign to achieve.

A straight choice for or against independence would confront many voters in Wales with the choice whether or not to abandon an identity they feel at least just as strongly as their Welsh identity – that with Britain. The danger is that they would prefer to maintain both and set back the cause of Welsh self-government for years. The independence campaign must persuade our compatriots in the border areas, the north-east or the coastal belt to believe that Wales is better run by itself than by Westminster.

Autonomy

There is a way forward – by insisting on greatly expanding Wales’s devolved powers. We have shown that we could deal with the pandemic better than the UK government. What possible argument can there be for denying Wales the right to run its own police, as Scotland and Northern Ireland do? Why must we beg to control media and broadcasting?

Indeed, while this year’s BBC / ICM poll showed that independence would only be the first choice of 11% of the population, together a full 54% of the population wanted either independence or more devolved powers.

And what use is that monstrous chimera, “England and Wales”? It is no help to anyone in either country to have statistics for both lumped together, or for the current muddle of competencies to continue. “England and Wales” must be abolished.

There is a danger that by arguing for independence now, we will miss the chance to campaign for a much stronger form of devolution that would give us the tools we need to further cement Welsh autonomy as has been done in Scotland, and demonstrate that our own parliament and government can make a real difference to the lives of the people of Wales.

Unlike independence that is a campaign that is winnable now. And having further established and secured Welsh autonomy, the argument can lead on to full independence.

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