Thursday, 22 December 2016

Looking to the future

What ‘independence’ actually means in practice varies over time; as the context changes, so the meaning changes.  Prior to the UK joining the then EEC, it was obvious what independence meant – it was that status enjoyed by the majority of European countries outside the Soviet bloc.  As the now EU expanded over time, to reach a point where it now encompasses almost all European countries, the meaning of ‘independence’ changed to reflect the new context.  It was, though, still equivalent to the status enjoyed by the majority of European states; it was simply that that status had changed. 
The question facing those of us who seek independence for Wales in the future is this: what does ‘independence’ mean in the new context which we will be facing?  And the prior question is: what is that new context?  There are three broad possibilities.
1.    It may just be wishful thinking on my part, but I’m not yet entirely convinced that Brexit will actually happen.  The more detail that we see and the more complexities there seem to be in extricating the UK from the EU, the more it seems to be at least possible that a movement to reverse the decision will succeed. 
2.    On the other hand, Brexit as currently foreseen may indeed happen, leaving the UK in a stronger/weaker (depending on perspective and events) position in the world, whilst the remaining 27 – joined in time by a few other countries such as the remaining Balkan states – continue the project on which they’ve set themselves. 
3.    There is another extreme of course (although this currently seems less likely to me) - it is not impossible that the mood for change will sweep across Europe and the EU will either collapse or else morph into something a great deal less coherent.  In the very worst case, Europe could even return to its ‘default’ long term condition of being a series of warring states.
Those are three very different scenarios, and for those of us who want to see an independent Wales, they lead to very different understandings of what ‘independence’ means.
We could have an interesting debate as to whether membership of the EU is truly ‘independence’ at all; inevitably membership of such an organisation implies a pooling of sovereignty in some areas.  But we could equally debate whether any country is truly independent any more, because in various ways we are all interdependent, and all countries share sovereignty in some areas to a greater or lesser extent.  In terms of considering the options for Wales looking forward, I start from the position of accepting that EU member state is the de facto definition of what ‘independence’ means in the modern European context.  So, in the ‘wishful thinking’ scenario referred to above, the definition of independence for Wales remains clear and it looks as though Scotland and/or Catalunya will show us the route by which we might achieve it.
In what I hope is the least likely scenario (a return to nation states with or without a looser form of association) the definition of independence for Wales looks very similar to that we used to use prior to membership of the EU.  And the route to achieving it is, if anything, clearer; secession from the UK more or less automatically results in that status.  And it would be the normal status of most European countries, so Wales would not be particularly exceptional.
The hardest scenario to deal with is the one which currently appears most likely.  What does independence look like for a Wales which finds itself outside the EU in an isolationist UK?  And will Scotland still be part of that isolationist UK?
The big difference between Scotland and Wales here is over timing; given the political situation in Scotland, it is at least conceivable that independence could occur on a timescale which means that Scotland never leaves the EU at all. 
(Of course there is debate, both legal and political, around the ease with which Scotland could achieve EU membership, but I tend to the view that, in the circumstances, the 27 remaining members of the EU would tend to adopt a pragmatic response to a country where all EU legislation and rules already apply.  The point about an unprecedented situation is that there is no precedent; and in the absence of precedent – as for instance in the case of the reunification of Germany – the EU tends to find a way forward which advances its core rationale of European unity.)
The position for Wales is different.  I see Wales as being at least a decade – and probably two – behind Scotland as things stand.  If Wales opts for independence at some future date, it will come after a period outside the EU during which the UK Parliament, led by jingoistic Little Englanders, will probably have rolled back much of EU legislation on employment rights and environmental protection etc.  The economy of Wales – already more integrated with that of England than is the case in Scotland, say – would have become even more integrated with that of England (especially if, as seems likely, the great new free trade area which we’ve been promised is limited to the UK itself in the early years). 
Where in Europe are there any exemplars for the position in which a Wales achieving independence would find itself in this scenario?  I simply don’t see any.  The position of a stand-alone Wales outside both the EU and the UK doesn’t look an attractive option to me, and the path to EU membership looks a great deal more difficult than it would be if we were to choose independence at the point of Brexit.  I’m very pessimistic about the future for Wales in that scenario; final and complete integration as a region of England looks by far the likeliest outcome.  I’ve argued before that the vote about UK membership of the EU was ultimately a political decision for me not an economic one – fear for the future of Wales in an isolationist EnglandandWales was a prime driver.
It concerns me that so many nationalists in Wales seem happy to ‘accept the result’ and talk only about the terms of Brexit rather than about how we seek to reverse it.  I fear that they are giving primacy to the short term economics, not the longer term politics; nationalists should always be looking to the long term.  Of course it’s true that a so-called ‘soft’ Brexit will do less immediate damage to the Welsh economy, and of course it’s true that a strong Welsh economy will theoretically make independence easier.  But Brexit, of any description, creates a new context, and redefines what independence means.  I think it makes it very much harder to achieve, not least because it becomes much less attractive as an option.
I was a late convert to support for EU membership, driven largely (as I’ve noted before) by the fact that as it has expanded it has effectively become the only game in town.  It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s the best – possibly the only – context in which Welsh ‘independence’ makes sense in the twenty-first century.  It seems to me that for nationalists to accept the principle of Brexit is to make a major mistake – and possibly a terminal one for the cause of Wales.


Anonymous said...

Excellent blog, finally someone challenges the wrongheaded view of welsh nationalists (mainly right wingers but lefties too) of firstly voting leave to achieve instability and then believing if they are rude enough about English incomers, Polish migrants and Muslims, then a majority of Welsh voters will automatically vote for them and their shiny new right wing welsh nationalist party that will lead Wales to independence, simply because they voted for UKIP in a few Welsh elections.

Wales is doomed, Scotland has a chance but will probably reject independence again and whatever people thought they were voting for, most outside Wales in the UK, Europe, America and elsewhere simply saw Welsh people voting themselves out of history.

John Dixon said...

I agree with the bit about some nationalists appearing to believe that voting to leave will create an oportunity, although I hope it's clear from the posting that I don't see it as such. I'm not sure about anyone being rude about "English incomers, Polish migrants and Muslims" - perhaps you are using 'news' sources which I don't. I've seen no evidence of that; there is a difference between being rude about people and wanting to control movement, although I accept that it can sometimes be a fine difference.

I think there is a different problem, which stems in part from a national sense of inferiority in Wales, of wanting to be well-regarded (particularly by Labour) which leads some to put 'being seen to be progressive' ahead of the original core objective. Whatever the reason, however, the underlying point is that the long term view of where we want to be and equally important, how we get there, is being lost, along with any analysis of the difficulties that the new context creates.

Brychan said...

There is no such thing as ‘soft Brexit’.

The single market, which is what the EU is, relies of (a) free movement of goods and services, (b) free movement of labour, and (c) free movement of capital. All three are interdependent. Hard Brexit is possible, but will result in economic and social catastrophe. Even if it’s possible for politicians to ‘spin’ a soft Brexit for a few years, at some point the wall of reality will hit. It is then, I predict that ‘events’ will crystallise the reality. Such events could be the loss of London finance supremo, or paralysis of infrastructure like railways like strikes, or the lights going out through no energy, or maybe just food getting too expensive in Tescos, or NHS charging due to public sector debt. It is then the Brexit vote will seem like a bit of a weird tantrum back in 2016, and there’ll be a re-entry to the EU. The Brexit reality would inevitably see a positive vote for independence for Scotland, a unification of Ireland, and for Wales, most likely direct rule from crisis. The question arises as to whether Plaid Cymru can steer a course to win the hearts and minds of the Welsh people during turbulent times. It should be remembered that the entry into the EU by other small states like Slovenia and the Baltic states was not as a result of nice fluffy discussions. Their independence was born out of crisis, purpose and resolve. If Westminster puts tanks in front of the Senedd, then we’ve won. The idea that a United Kingdom, stable, in a world some kind of fraternal global trading utopia is pure fantasy.

This is how a small country enters the EU as an independent state.

Anonymous said...

Surely this issue is rather simpler than any of you attempt to portray. The vast majority of people living in Wales are happy with the current status quo come what may from BREXIT or otherwise. There is no wish for independence. For most it has and always will be 'EnglandandWales', matters of sport aside.

Yes, I see Leanne Wood talk of 'English incomers' during FMQ's but she knows as well as anyone there are no English incomers anymore than there are Welsh Aborigines, we are just a giant melting pot, melted over quite some centuries! It's just silly talk from Plaid when they have nothing else to offer.

And therein lies the rub. Until there is something better on offer, something tangible change isn't likely to come. Forget all the talk of 'our nation', such expressions are as meaningless as Leanne Wood's comments. Unless we can find a Donald Trump I don't see any road map for 'small country' status.

Anonymous said...

Anon 22.42 here again, no I would never put you in that category, you always have something interesting to say even If I disagree which isn’t often and I enjoy your blog.

In terms of evidence I’m talking about people I know and what I’m reading online on social media and other blogs, welsh independence if it ever happens needs to be as inclusive as possible, only excluding the most reluctant to embrace Wales’s cause because its counterproductive, but I see little sign right wing welsh nationalists get that and their doing damage to the cause.

On my Wales is doomed comment, its doomed not because of Brexit, but because of the chronic lack of credible political leadership in any party. Wales is drifting and no one knows what to do it seems.

Have a good Christmas and keep blogging in the New Year.

John Dixon said...

Anon 19:11,

"The vast majority of people living in Wales are happy with the current status quo come what may from BREXIT or otherwise." With the exception of the word 'vast', I would not disagree. "There is no wish for independence." Again, the use of the word 'no' makes this a sweeping exaggeration; but I accept that support for independence is a minority viewpoint. But - so what? If you believe that the job of politicians is to follow public opinion, then it's an adequate argument against; but for those of us who believe that it is the job of politicians to present a view of 'what could be' and then lead, it's not an argument, merely a statement of the scale of the task.

"...there are no English incomers..." This is simply an attempt to deny a fact. It is a fact that there are English incomers to Wales, just as it is a fact that there are movements of people between rutrral Wales and Cardiff, for instance. The question is not whether it is true or not, but what its significance is and whether it should be considered a problem. Some think it is; you obviously think it isn't. That's an opinion which can be debated; but the fact cannot simply be denied.

"Unless we can find a Donald Trump I don't see any road map for 'small country' status." Uh? How on earth do you get to that statement from what went before? It's a complete non-sequitur.

Anonymous said...

John Dixon 08:17

Apologies but I think you misunderstand the essence of my post.

To describe someone as an 'English incomer' is plain silly. It engenders all sorts of unpleasant connotations. And, if we think about it 'the English' have infinitely more rights to occupy this land of Wales and do what they wish with it than we do. They fought against us for it, we lost, they won, and neither they nor the international community think they should give it back to us. Or is my understanding of our history confused?

Perhaps there is a problem with 'the English' in Wales. But doubtless 'the English' in Wales are equally sick of the Welsh in Wales. We may want rid of them but haven't they got the right, as conquerors, to get rid of us first. I suspect the rest of the world might rather express significant support for the English just as they support the Australians against the troublemaking Aborigines of that land.

And as for Donald Trump, the point here is that one man, not one political party or one set of freedom fighters, one man alone can change the course of history. If we could find such a man Wales might well be able to plot a course for independence. But we need to find that one man. And at the moment it seems no-one is really looking.

John Dixon said...

"To describe someone as an 'English incomer' is plain silly." I disagree. It's merely a statement of fact that someone who comes from England to Wales is an English incomer, just as it's a statement of fact that a Welsh person moving to England is a 'Welsh incomer' from an English perspective, os someone moving from Glamorgan to Carmarthen is a 'Glamorgan incomer' from a Carmarthen perspective. It's not at all silly. How useful it is as a description is another matter entirely, and the interpretations that people place on the phrase are just that - interpretations. It was you who introduced the term into this thread, and neither it, nor any debate around it, are really relevant to the point of the original post.

"Perhaps there is a problem with 'the English' in Wales." The post didn't say that there was - you've introduced this red herring as well.

"And as for Donald Trump, the point here is that one man, not one political party or one set of freedom fighters, one man alone can change the course of history." We could have a very interesting debate as to whether individuals create change or 'merely' take advantage of a change in outlook which has already happened. Do 'great men' (and I use the term extremely cautiously in the case of Trump) change history, or does history produce the circumstances from which they arise? But a comment thread on another subject really isn't the place for that.

Democritus said...

If as John fairly convincingly posits we should see the Brexit vote as signalling the resurgence of England as a distinct political entity with a different conception of its place in the world to that of the Scots or Irish it does indeed place we Welsh in a rather precarious situation in which we would either need to walk away from the remains of the UK ourselves; or just accept effective (re)-annexation to our (relatively) giant nextdoor neighbours, with whom we've been interdependent for centuries.
I expect there will be a further Scottish referendum in the coming decade and I could see it going either way. If they walk, then we will be able to see how they manage and if they make a decent go at it and are visibly wealthier, healthier etc after the initial years of upheaval we might be able to be talked into doing likewise. Carwyn has but weak cards to play in this poker game. He is naturally hoping it doesn't get raised any further right now. Wait & see sounds like a classically Welsh strategy, but it is clear, particularly given our own vote for Brexit, that the future of the union is up to the peoples of England and Scotland to determine as it can only remain in current form with the consent of both.
The world could appear drastically different in 2026 (assuming Trump lets us reach it). The EU itself really could disintegrate quite dramatically. Or if Mrs May's government tears itself apart on Brexit and social policy, then given the inability of Corbyn's Labour to offer a really credible alternative, our own party system could be further reshaped pretty fundamentally.

Jonathan said...

Lets get to the heart of this. You "start from the position of accepting that EU member state is the de facto definition of what ‘independence’ means in the modern European context." This is a respectable point of view, and may represent the Plaid policy. But it nowhere near meets the needs of the Welsh case. I think this is because we do not learn enough civics and do not have the mental furniture to deal with the problem of Wales, certainly not in the context of Brexit. Here is my contribution.
Any American knows two things. 1. What they have is part of the English/British historical and common-law tradition. 2. They can bring a very respectable order based on tradition, yet forward-thinking, out of a constitutional mess. They, like you, start from the question of "What is a State?" But they come to a different answer. You clearly have in mind the EU member state which actually in International Law means your standard nation state.Being an EU state still means you are a nation state. Wales cannot easily get to this position without a real earthquake such as did actually happen in Ireland. Too violent to work in Wales - and not necessary. Because the Anglo/British common- law tradition (and international law) is quite happy with another sort of State. The US kind of State. It need not frighten anyone's horses to apply it to Wales, and it supplies a lot of answers. 3 Aspects
1. In theory totally sovereign over everthing. Yes, US states have this feature
2. Things which go with total sovereignty but are not in reality invoked: a right to secede, a right to wage war, a right to run a currency. An interesting one is the right to conduct foreign policy. US states have delegated this to Washington of course. But in reality it is fascinating how states do have a bureau - often hidden away - which conducts diplomacy. North Carolina certainly does. And guess what - so does Wales!
3. Things which go with total sovereignty and which are used every day: criminal law, commercial law, family law, all law really,, courts, police. (Americans have no problem with State borders and different laws. Not a problem with Scotland, and should not frighten the horses in Wales). Taxes, the lot really. Another grey area is actually defence. States can and do raise armed forces themselves. And they work with Washington, closely of course. Its called the National Guard.
In summary, grappling with federalism in the UK would probably give Wales a result that would be light years ahead of where we are now. Just one problem. This is the UK. No civics, only gut reactions. For reasons oddly but sadly only too familiar, even the word triggers nameless fears. Of what, is 1776 at the bottom of this strange British psychosis?
Statehood for Wales - the North Carolina kind, though there are 49 other examples!