Boris Johnson was taken to task recently by a Swedish MP for using the word ‘liberation’ in the context of the UK leaving the EU. I’m not particularly interested in the precise definition of the words here as much as the underlying attitudes which the uses of the word display. It is clear to me that many Brexiteers really do see it in terms of regaining liberty and sovereignty (even though the government’s own white paper on Brexit makes it clear that sovereignty was never in doubt). It convinces me that they really don't understand what 'domination' by another country actually means, but if they truly believe that exiting the EU is about regaining lost liberty it’s easy to understand why they are so surprised that most independentistas don’t support Brexit. And conversely, it’s a perspective which helps to explain why some independentistas are so fond of Brexit.
It’s a question of more than merely academic interest, and is particularly pertinent to the debate in Scotland on a second independence referendum. It’s a major part of the explanation as to why it isn’t possible to draw a simple line from the 62% pro-EU vote to a majority for independence. The problem, for the SNP, is that a significant minority of those supporting independence also support leaving the EU, seeing both as a question of ‘freedom’.
At a superficial level, it’s easy to see how the misunderstanding arises. Why, after all, would people opposed to decisions being taken in one capital outside their country support them being taken in another capital outside their country? Why distinguish between one ‘union’ and another ‘union’? Part of the answer, of course, is that the comparison is over-simplistic – the fact that the word ‘union’ is used in both cases is too easily interpreted to mean that they’re the same thing. Explaining why the two are different is challenging in a political milieu which reduces everything to simple slogans.
From a historical perspective, there is a huge difference between a union brought about by military conquest, where one particular nationality is dominant, and where sovereignty is deemed to reside in the centre on the one hand, and a union which is joined voluntarily on the basis of a mutually agreed set of terms, which recognises that sovereignty lies with the people of the member states, and which is, in its very essence, a multi-language and multi-culture organisation dominated by no one country on the other. Although it might look like decisions are being taken in faraway capitals in both cases, there are some key differences there as well. In the case of one union, they are taken by a government which is dominated by one ‘member’ of the union, and in the other, there is of necessity a more collective approach to decision-taking with lengthy negotiations between the partners and a qualified majority system of voting at the end. In other words, in the one union, we get to do what we are told, whilst in the other we get the same level of input as other members before a collective decision is taken. We will still be outvoted on occasions, of course. But to claim that that is somehow less democratic than simply being told what to do is to traduce the meaning of the word democracy.
Even the most committed Brexiteers display through their words that they understand the difference between the two, even if that understanding is not always a conscious one. If the two were truly equivalent, than an EU which included England, Scotland and Wales as independent individual members would be, in effect, maintaining the “union” between the countries of the UK, simply on a looser, more equal basis. The fact that they don’t see it that way demonstrates clearly that, at some level, they understand the different nature of the two unions. And it underlines the essential nationalism of their position; one set of borders, one set of political and governance arrangements, is axiomatically “better” than another.
Some of the strongest arguments that I’ve seen against membership of the EU are based on opposition to the capitalist ideology underlying the EU. They are arguments with which I have a great deal of sympathy, and they mirror the arguments used by many (including myself) in the 1975 referendum. But the option of an alternative arrangement with a significant number of other countries outside the EU no longer exists, and the idea that Wales can build ‘socialism in one country’, to borrow a not-entirely-happy slogan from the past, strikes me as wishful thinking in the twenty-first century. I’m simply not convinced that we can build our future in isolation from the rest of Europe; the world has become too integrated for that. The problem, in a nutshell, is that however good some of those points are as arguments against membership of the EU, they do not stand up as arguments for the only alternative on the table, which is being part of an isolationist UK (with or without Scotland) in which the ideology so criticised in relation to the EU holds even stronger sway.
I understand why some independentistas want to have no part of either union (or presumably any alternative union) – and why they therefore celebrate rather than oppose Brexit. I understand why that looks more like ‘proper’ independence than membership of either the EU or the UK. But how realistic is it to argue that Wales could or should be ‘totally independent’ in the modern globalised world? Joining any international body (including the UN) necessarily requires a pooling of sovereignty with other countries; it necessarily requires that not all decisions taken will be taken unanimously, and that sometimes we will disagree. In addition, all the other members of the EU consider themselves ‘proper’ independent states, and would laugh at the idea that they are not. Why does Welsh independence require us to be ‘more independent’ than them? It seems to be taking a particularly ‘British’ or ‘Brexiteer’ view of what independence is, rather than looking at it from a Welsh or European perspective. It’s as though parts of the Welsh national movement are forgetting our long history of taking that more European outlook and are instead being sucked along in the flow of defining things in very British terms. To me, that’s a curious position for any independentista to take.
The question is how much sovereignty we should share and with whom. Not all unions are equivalent, and probably none will be perfect. I’m convinced that being in an organisation which includes a number of other similar sized countries with whom we can work offers a better future to Wales than being in an off-shore island totally dominated by the neighbour to our east. Yet the latter is, today, the default future awaiting us. And looking to the longer term, persuading people in Wales that our best future lies in opting out of that and becoming an independent state outside both unions looks to me to be a much harder task than persuading them to opt in to membership of a European union on equal terms with other European nations. The latter is also more compatible with the general flow of European history in the twenty-first century. Brexit takes that second option off the table, and independentistas supporting, or even facilitating, Brexit are, in my view, pushing Wales’ entry into the world into the far-distant future as a result.