The gist of this story yesterday seems to be that if the UK Prime Minister continues to pursue the only realistic option for Brexit rather than attempt the impossible sort which the Brexiteers actually promised, then Plaid might have to start talking about independence for Wales. The implicit corollary is that if she caves in and asks for the impossible instead, then Plaid will continue not talking about the question of independence. Mrs May must be quaking in her (probably very expensive) boots. Or perhaps not.
But what really interested me was the claim by an anonymous spokesperson for the Conservatives in Wales that independence would be “a break from the most successful economic union in the history of the world”. Even in the sphere of political hyperbole, “the most successful … in the history of the world” is quite some claim to be making. I bet that the individual who came up with that one is quite proud of the phrase, and never gave a moment’s thought to its veracity or provability.
The first question is what they mean by ‘economic union’. Perhaps they are defining it so narrowly that there are no suitable comparators. In that case, the statement would be ‘true’, naturally; but it would also mean that the converse would be true, because in a field of one, the most successful would also be the least successful. But let’s assume that they’re not depending on that type of sophistry, then with whom exactly are they drawing the comparison?
Well, there’s the EU itself, of course. Many would see that as a pretty successful economic union, but the Tories obviously don’t, or they wouldn’t be so gleefully taking us out of it. Then, of course, most European states were formed by ‘union’ between smaller entities. Some unions were the result of agreements, others by judicious marriages, but mostly – just like the UK – the result of military conquest of some parts by others. So Germany, France, Italy – from any objective perspective (difficult for Tories, of course, for whom exceptionalism is the norm) these are all economic unions in the same way as the UK. Or how about the USA – that looks like an economic union to me as well. Is the UK really more successful than all of those?
But hold on – their jingoism isn’t time-delimited; the comparison wasn’t just with current states, it was with the whole of human history. So – more successful than the Roman Empire or Imperial China as well. To say it’s a ‘sweeping’ claim is more than mere understatement. Although I should put a caveat here – it is entirely possible that for the Tories, ‘history’ only started with the British Empire.
Next up, we have to ask what we mean by ‘successful’. Normally, when people like the Tories start talking about the ‘success’ of the UK, they have at least half an eye to the fighting and winning of wars; it’s an essential part of their view of what makes the UK what it is. But since they were referring on this occasion to ‘economic union’, I suppose we should restrict ourselves to considering economic success. If we measure economic success through GDP per head (a reasonable measure), then the UK sits somewhere between 13th and 16th in the ranking tables (depending on which measure is used). And not all of those countries ahead of it in the tables could be described as ‘unions’, although several can. So, I suppose that had they said ‘one of the most successful in recent history’, they might have been closer to a truth of some sort, although it doesn’t have the same ring to it. (And it does give them another problem as well in using this argument against independence for Wales - insofar as logic is of any concern to them, of course. There may be few ‘unions’ above the UK in the table, but there are quite a few small independent states...)
And finally, we have to ask ourselves another, slightly more subtle, question – success for whom? Even were they not facing the problems outlined above in justifying their statement, there is still the major problem that success for the whole is not at all the same thing as success for all the parts. For all the ‘success’ that they claim for the ‘economic union’ which constitutes the UK, that success has not been equally shared. It has accrued overwhelmingly to one part of the union, whilst other parts, and especially Wales in this context, have been left behind. Confusing ‘average’ with ‘all’ is a regular problem for mathematically-challenged politicians, but in this case, as so often, the difference is a key part of the argument.Taking the Tories’ claim at face value, the big question that they have completely failed to answer is this – if the UK is such a successful economic union, why does it appear such a failure from a Welsh perspective? And the fact that they are unable or unwilling either to answer the question or to do anything about it underlines why taking control of our own affairs ought to be on the table (regardless of the nature of Brexit).