Welsh independence just isn’t going to happen

Welsh nationalism is unpopular and impractical – and Brexit will make it even more so.

Marcus Stead

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Topics Brexit Politics UK

To the untrained eye, months of chaos and confusion at Westminster appear to have resulted in raised levels of interest in Welsh independence. Crowds in the low thousands have attended ‘independence’ marches in Cardiff, Caernarfon and Merthyr Tydfil. Labour first minister of Wales Mark Drakeford and his predecessor Carwyn Jones have made noises that a badly handled Brexit could lead to Wales breaking away from the union.

In recent weeks, former sportsmen such as ex-Everton and Wales goalkeeper Neville Southall and former national rugby captain Eddie Butler, now a prominent BBC rugby union commentator, have come out as supporters of Welsh independence — the latter was a guest speaker at the recent Merthyr Tydfil rally.

But take a closer look beyond the sympathetic reporting from an almost entirely anti-Brexit Welsh media, and it quickly becomes clear that these are more likely the dying screams of a finished cause. Plaid Cymru and the wider Welsh nationalist movement fear a successful Brexit, because they know it will damage rather than help their movement.

Welsh nationalism has always been something of a niche cause. Opinion polls have for many years shown levels of support fluctuating between nine and 15 per cent. An ITV Wales poll earlier this year, for instance, showed just 12 per cent would vote for independence if a referendum were held. Plaid Cymru has around 8,000 members, compared to 125,000 for its Scottish equivalent, the SNP.

A recent YouGov poll appeared to indicate a dramatic increase in support for Welsh independence. It was commissioned by Plaid Cymru and so should be taken with a pinch of salt. As with all polls, the questions and phrases need to be interrogated carefully. The poll showed that 33 per cent of respondents said Wales should be independent from the UK in order to remain an EU member, while 48 per cent said Wales should not be independent from the UK to remain an EU member. The remainder said they did not know, or refused to answer the question. In another question, 24 per cent said they would vote for Welsh independence if a referendum was held tomorrow, while 52 per cent said they would not.

Yet how much of this supposed surge in support for Welsh independence is a kneejerk reaction to three years of the government’s appalling handling of Brexit, combined with the very visible decline of the House of Commons from a globally respected ‘mother of all parliaments’ to a complete laughing stock? If Brexit does go ahead on 31 October, or at any time in the months ahead, the Welsh nationalist vision of an ‘independent’ Wales within the European Union will quickly be exposed as an absurdity.

First of all, an independent Wales would have to go through the process of joining the EU. This, in itself, would take many years, quite possibly a decade or more. How would an independent Wales manage in the meantime? What’s more, Wales would very likely fail the EU’s membership criteria, particularly with regards to its capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU.

The Welsh economy is not in a good way. Just one of the UK’s FTSE top 100 companies is based in Wales (vehicle insurance firm Admiral). It is heavily reliant on the public sector for employment – and on fiscal support from the rest of the UK. Figures released in July by the Office for National Statistics showed public spending in Wales was £13.7 billion more than the total amount collected in taxes, which works out at a deficit of £4,376 per person. At present, around 80 per cent of the Welsh government’s funding comes directly from Westminster in the form of a block grant. Making up that shortfall in a post-independence Wales would be a huge task.

Moreover, in an independent Wales, the Welsh government would have to assume responsibility for, and therefore fund, areas of policy that are not currently devolved, including foreign policy, defence, law and order, pensions and broadcasting. Assuming an independent Wales rejoins the EU, its meagre structural funds aren’t going to help either: according to the Welsh government, Wales currently receives just £680million per year in EU funds.

If an independent Wales could overcome these hurdles to join the EU, it would then be forced to adopt the euro, as all new EU members are. This would be a very hard sell to the people of Wales. Nearly two decades after the euro launched, it is becoming increasingly clear that one currency with one interest rate for a whole continent is not working out well. The inability of the current 19 member states to adjust interest rates to suit their own circumstances, along with the fiscal spending rules, has led to mass unemployment, especially among young people, in vast swathes of southern Europe (youth unemployment is currently an eye-watering 39 per cent in Greece). It is easy to imagine how a small country like Wales could end up in a similar position inside the euro.

The next big issue is the border with England. If you think the Northern Ireland border and the issue of the backstop is an enormous headache, you ain’t seen nothing yet! The border between England and Wales runs for a whopping 160 miles from the Dee estuary in the north to the Severn estuary in the south. There are two well-known Severn bridges linking Wales with the South West, where vehicle tolls were removed in late 2018, more than 52 years after they were imposed when the first bridge opened.

In addition, thousands of vehicles cross daily and seamlessly along the A48 between South Wales and the Midlands. In north east Wales, the reality is that a very large number of people in Denbighshire and Flintshire don’t think in terms of being in England or Wales. They are aligned economically and culturally to Cheshire, Merseyside and Lancashire. They use the many roads crossing between the two countries for work, leisure and recreation. There are also numerous smaller road crossings between England and Wales along Offa’s Dyke, plus railway lines and footpaths. Would the EU insist on a hard border between the two countries to protect its Single Market?

There is also a huge amount of cross-border integration between England and Wales in public services and government administration. New bodies might need to be created after separation. For example, Welsh patients with serious liver problems are frequently treated in Birmingham. Meanwhile, the DVLA’s base for the whole of the UK is in Swansea, and is one of the city’s largest employers, with more than 5,000 staff. After separation, this would have to be relocated elsewhere, and a separate body for vehicle registration created for Wales. A similar situation would apply to Companies House, whose headquarters in Cardiff and Nantgarw employs more than 1,000 staff.

Welsh nationalism has always been a minority cause, but Brexit will render it all the more so.

Marcus Stead is a journalist based in Cardiff.

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Comments

Gareth Edward KING

20th September 2019 at 7:34 pm

Welsh ‘independence’ can be compared with Catalonian ‘independence’, which would of course mean within the confines of the EU. In Catalonia it currently stands at c. 39% of the 6 million Catalonian population. In both cases there should be referenda, so that yes, the locals could decide. Arguements need to be heard for sure, but both possibilities for so-called independence are dead ducks. Why is it that Brussels diktat is more attractive than being ruled from London (or Madrid)? It beats me. It just shows the hollowness and lack of substance from these identity-obsessed regionalists.

Winston Stanley

21st September 2019 at 5:45 am

Most polls since 2017 have shown a clear majority in favour of Catalan independence. A referendum is the way to settle it but Madrid bottles it b/c they know that they are likely to lose.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalan_independence_movement#Public_opinion

Scottish independence polls have been on a knife edge for/ against. A referendum could go either way. Support for YES swung massively upward during the 2014 campaign, it would take far less this time. YES is a very real possibility and it becomes ever more likely the longer that it takes to have a referendum as younger generations tend to support YES. Scottish independence is practically inevitable at some point over the next decade anyway.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

18th September 2019 at 11:24 pm

On the contrary. National independence for Wales is entirely practical within the context of the EU and/or a wider pan-Celtic union.

CYMRU AM BYTH

cliff resnick

19th September 2019 at 10:18 am

yes of course it is, entirely practical any fool could see that.

Jim Lawrie

19th September 2019 at 8:44 pm

What is a “pan-Celtic Union”?

Winston Stanley

20th September 2019 at 3:04 am

https://nation.cymru/news/irish-newspaper-calls-for-union-between-ireland-wales-and-scotland/

Irish newspaper calls for union between Ireland, Wales and Scotland

Winston Stanley

20th September 2019 at 3:06 am

cliff resnick

18th September 2019 at 9:15 pm

To Winston be serious

Winston Stanley

19th September 2019 at 8:43 am

Fact check, there are 194 countries in the world that are not part of UK. Who knew that Wales could be one too?

cliff resnick

19th September 2019 at 10:05 am

Brilliant!

Alan Brown

18th September 2019 at 8:41 pm

Independence is all about Plaid’s obsession with the Welsh Language rather than long term economic reality. There is a cabal of Welsh speaking senior civil servants who are assisting this agenda by favouring capital investment for Welsh speaking schools and pushing a policy to have 1M Welsh speakers by 2050. Time will show this is all a pipe dream but in the meantime the fuss makes a lot of talking heads and minor celebrities look informed and important

Andrew-Paul Shakespeare

18th September 2019 at 8:14 pm

Plaid Cymru wants to stop taking orders from London, so it can just take them direct from Brussels instead. This is independence, apparently.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

18th September 2019 at 11:26 pm

I suggest Wales would do rather better under Brussels than it has done under London over the last 50 years.

Winston Stanley

18th September 2019 at 5:22 pm

It really is up to the Welsh whether they want independence. There are many small countries in Europe with similar sized populations that do much better economically than Wales does within the UK, eg. Denmark, Finland, Norway, Ireland, Luxembourg and Iceland.

UK is spectacularly bad for the regions, with 8 of the 10 poorest regions in northern Europe located in the UK. UK investment is mainly focused around London and the south east and it has been for decades. The other regions are neglected as appendages, and they are kept only for vanity sake and for the ego of the British State. It makes the English feel “superior” to run down Wales.

The present article demonstrates that Wales has no progressive future in the UK and that it would do better to go it alone. Dependence on England has simply not worked out and it never will and it is time to give independence a try. If other small nations can do better on their own then so can Wales. One need only look at NI to see the sort of complete disaster that the British State is willing to maintain for its own vanity.

40% indicated in a recent poll that they would vote for Welsh independence and that shows that their attachment to the UK is not as strong as some would make out. The re-emergence of the Welsh language can only boost its national bonds and help the people of Wales to overcome docility to English domination. Wales can be a proud, independent nation once again once it sheds the colonised mindset.

Post-UK they could look to develop economic and cultural ties with other Celtic nations like Ireland and Scotland in some sort of Celtic zone as well as ties with Europe. England and Westminster need no longer be treated as the centre of the world. Economic development and social progress are focused elsewhere. The British Empire is long gone and Europe is integrated and multi-polar.

Good luck to the Welsh whatever they decide. Independence-minded people all over the UK and around the world are rooting for them.

Cofiwch Dryweryn

cliff resnick

18th September 2019 at 9:18 pm

what like being apart of the EU, exactly what the article is about, I expect you work in the public sector.

Richard Penderyn

18th September 2019 at 4:12 pm

You keep saying Wales is too poor, but thats a terrible indictment of Uk and English rule over the last 800 years

Stephen J

18th September 2019 at 3:09 pm

Is that a long way of saying that seventy-five percent of Welsh voters, did so for Brexit?

Ven Oods

18th September 2019 at 1:59 pm

With a pair of political heavy-hitters like Neville Southall and Eddie Butler involved, it’s obviously time to start worrying.

Richard Penderyn

18th September 2019 at 4:16 pm

The article is full of logical fallacies… Austria and Hungary used to be highly connected and integrated for example

Dominic Straiton

18th September 2019 at 1:10 pm

You cant have your picau ar y maen and eat it.

Jane 70

18th September 2019 at 12:30 pm

Imagine the ramifications of trying to impose a backstop along the length of Offa’s Dyke. The mind boggles.

Richard Penderyn

18th September 2019 at 4:10 pm

Imagine France and Germany having a border longer than Wales and England…. oh wait they do

Mike Ellwood

18th September 2019 at 6:09 pm

Iawn siwr, but they are both in the EU and the Eurozone, single market, customs union, ayyb.

Richard Penderyn

18th September 2019 at 4:22 pm

Imagine border checks behind Canada and the USA. The mind boggles

Mike Ellwood

18th September 2019 at 6:10 pm

They are in the same FTA.

cliff resnick

18th September 2019 at 11:59 am

Wales needs to get real if we want to attract business and investment apart from a bloated public sphere, we need to become investment friendly. Politics here are always under pressure and held back by the fantasies of “nationalist” who are more concerned about turning Wales in theme park, their most important policies is separating Wales off from the rest of the UK and the rest of the world by imposing an archaic language that less than about 200,000 people have as first language although it claimed that up to half a million people can speak it fluently, that’s mainly because it’s taught in a lot of schools, that time might be better spent learning Cantonese! It might be added that all these Welsh speakers are 100% fluent in English as the rest of the UK, you certainly wouldn’t know the difference.
Devolution has certainly not helped anyone except the nationalist and the politicians that can’t make it “for the most part” on the UK national stage, if they closed the Cardiff Synedd would it really make any difference to the running of Wales, actually there is a strong possibility that it would greatly improve things at least in education and health.
The Cymraeg grind-stone is hung round the neck of any enterprise in the public sphere, everything has to be in two languages, if not by law, I’m not sure about that but certainly in convention. It’s even being imposed on the young at school where the trend is for schools to teach in the Welsh language, how long do our language “meisters” hope that English becomes an extra curriculum activity, still any expense is worth it to the “professional” Welshmen, even their children’s future, to them it seems is a price well worth paying.
No wonder commercial companies don’t want to come here, along with any other challenges why bother with all the hassle when it’s also more convenient for almost everything else to be located the English side of the Offa’s Dyke.

Richard Penderyn

18th September 2019 at 4:11 pm

English imperialism is dying and these articles are its last screams

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

18th September 2019 at 11:26 pm

Yes, English nationalism is so tedious, isn’t it? They just can’t accept the loss of empire. Precisely how Brexiteers intend to take back India, HK, Africa, North America and Australia is not clear. I think it might prove ‘impractical’.

Richard Penderyn

18th September 2019 at 4:18 pm

You must cry at night that other countries teach non-English languages and still atteact inward commercial investment

cliff resnick

18th September 2019 at 4:40 pm

Richard really, “English imperialism”, what planet are you living on the outer reaches of Machynlleth? There’s a reason why Wales is struggling economically and it’s nothing to do with England, in fact if England didn’t subsidise Wales and its foibles we’d be in an even worse state than at present. Just to point out you can only “eat your words” in a metaphorical sense.

Winston Stanley

18th September 2019 at 6:06 pm

That is what the Tories used to say about Ireland, that they were lazy, profligate, Catholics, lacked initiative etc. That they should be grateful to England for what they have. And look at it now, Ireland is the fastest growing economy in EU and UK is bottom of the G20 growth table. Never believe the lies that Tories tell you about who you are and what you are capable of. The first thing is to shed the inferiority complex that England nurtures against it subject colonies. They only tell you that “you cannot, you are not capable” to keep you down and to boost their own vanity. Wales is a proud nation and the world is its oyster. Wales too can be a nation once again.

Dymru am ddim

Jim Lawrie

19th September 2019 at 9:00 pm

Learning English at the age of five didn’t hold Lloyd George back, nor many other Welshmen, like Richard Burton.

It is not the Welsh language that is holding the country back, it is the failed welfare experiment, and the refusal to accept this and move on. Hence the room for a backward looking nationalism. If all funding for Welsh were halted tomorrow, there would be a clamour of identitarians claiming the money. The gravy train would have new snouts, but that is all.

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