Speaking in the National Assembly on Tuesday, the First Minister said of independence: “The case for independence by those who make it in Wales is built not on the economy, to my mind, but on emotion.” I’m sure that he really believes that to be true (and I’m equally sure that, for at least some independentistas, it actually is true), but to me it looks like the usual approach of politicians – present your opponents’ arguments as something which they are not, and then dismiss that. It’s a lot easier than engaging with the real arguments. It is, however, a hopeless over-simplification, which firstly claims, in essence, that there can only be two possible grounds for independence, and then proceeds to dismiss one as being unrealistic and the other as preferring emotion over fact. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t see things quite in those terms.
I have, in the past, described myself as an accidental independentista, because my own grounds for seeking independence for Wales don’t fit either of the categories outlined by the First Minister; and I suspect that there are many others who also wouldn’t categorise themselves in either box. Independence has always been, for me, a means to an end rather than the end in itself as which opponents prefer to paint it. So here are some very briefly summarised alternative thoughts on the issue of independence.
Being small is an advantage in itself. I don’t simply mean that small countries often do better, in economic terms, than larger ones. They do, as it happens, but it is by no means easy to draw a straight line between cause and effect, and assuming that Wales must do better by itself is far too simplistic. What I mean is that for anyone who wants to see a more participative and localised form of democracy, smaller units are more likely to be able to facilitate that than larger ones. There is much in the work done by people such as Kohl and Schumacher decades ago (which did more to convince me of the merits of independence than any lengthy conference speeches evoking the Welsh heroes of the past!) on the advantages of being a small country. Putting people back at the heart of economics rather than seeing them as resources to be used is central to my own political outlook, but requires us to work on a smaller, more human, scale.
Identity is a bastion against globalisation. Adherents of globalised capitalist ideology rail against what they refer to as ‘identity politics’. From their perspective, turning the population of the world into identikit consumers is an entirely desirable outcome. For those who see humans as being more than an economic resource at the disposal of others, meaning and identity are an important part of that humanity, and insisting on, and protecting, identity and culture (in the wide sense of the word) is part of resisting the forces of globalised capitalism which see us as purely economic entities.
Why Wales? Nothing in the above necessarily mandates that the unit should be Wales rather than some other territory bounded by any other type of line on a map. And I have posted before on the right of any group of people in any defined territory to take control of their own futures if that is what they wish to do. My argument for treating Wales as a unit boils down, in essence, to the fact that a sufficient number of people see Wales as their nation and Welshness as their identity. What either of those are, in reality, is a much more flexible concept to deal with (and something I’ve discussed previously), but building a polity around an existing identity has always seemed to me to be preferable to trying to build an identity around a polity.
The break-up of the UK will be of benefit to all the parties concerned. Even if they can’t all see it yet. It is an oft-repeated truth that the UK is a post-imperial power seeking a new role but which has yet to find one with which it is comfortable. This is the issue at the heart of Brexit; the UK has still not adapted to the loss of empire or understood that it is no longer the great power which once it was. And to be honest, whilst the UK continues to exist, I do not believe that it ever will. But the emergence of the new states of Wales, Scotland, and England seems to me to be the likeliest scenario in which all three can break free of their historical baggage; enthusiastically in the case of two of the three albeit with some reluctance in the case of the third.
Economics is about consequences not arguments. The idea that whether Wales should or should not become and independent nation depends entirely on the economic case – which seems to be the First Minister’s position – is a curious one; and it’s even more curious that so many independentistas have fallen for it over the years. The economic outcome of government policy within the current structures is essentially unknowable – the only reason that any individual economist has ever been able to make accurate predictions about anything is that there exist a sufficient number of economists to cover almost all the possible options (they’re a bit like monkeys with typewriters); ‘economic forecasting’ is an oxymoron. And if that’s true when the structures are known and stable, it’s even truer for any alternative scenario. Of course we can make guesses and estimates about the future, but the idea that any of us can know, with any degree of certainty, what the economic outcome of independence (or the lack thereof) would be is fanciful to say the least. All the most accurate economic forecasts and explanations are the retrospective ones; and what we can say with a degree of certainty is that those countries which have become independent have invariably adapted, and most have thrived. A second thing that we can say is that if economics is the be-all and end-all basis for judging success of governmental structures, then the present approach hasn’t exactly served Wales well.
There’s more to identity than emotion. People often confuse – sometimes deliberately – patriotism, nationalism, and identity. The first of those, and to a lesser extent the second, can often be expressed and felt in terms which are highly emotional; but the third is something much more emotionally neutral. One can be Welsh and proud of it; one can be Welsh and ashamed of it – but neither the shame nor the pride necessarily change the way in which we self-identify. Trying to pretend that wanting to turn an identity into a polity is an entirely emotional response – which is what the First Minister was implying – is missing the point. And probably deliberately so.
Independence is just the starting point. Gaining independence for Wales isn’t just some dry academic constitutional obsession as often claimed by opponents; it’s about creating the conditions under which we can collectively build an alternative future for the people living in this corner of the world. I have my ideas about what that future might look like – some of those will be clear from the points above and others have been covered on this blog over the years. Other people will have alternative views. The point is that it will be up to us to shape that future, not have it determined for us. What exactly is the problem with that as a concept?The problem that we face is that so many in Wales are, like the First Minister, so wedded to the axiomatic ‘rightness’ of the world as it is that they are unable to envision a different future. Instead of thinking about what that future might look like and how we might achieve it, they grasp at false arguments to protect the status quo. Having said all that, I will partially agree with the First Minister that there is an emotional element to my support for independence, based around confidence and hope. But on that basis, there’s an emotional element to the First Minister’s position as well – it’s based around fear and timidity. Faced with that choice, I’ll choose hope and confidence any day.