Wales isn’t Scotland, and there are always dangers in trying to extrapolate the situation in one country into conclusions for the other. The differences go back a long way, well before the advent of devolution; the difference in the devolution settlements is in large part the result of the starting point being so different. Scotland, for instance, already had its own legal system. And here in Wales, the national cause has long been complicated by the overlap between the political and the linguistic battles.
But we shouldn’t allow the stress on the differences to blind us to some similarities either. Plaid Cymru and the SNP both have their roots in the same period of history, and their record of electoral success (or lack thereof) over the long term shows a number of parallels. Even as recently as the first elections to the devolved bodies in 1999, the electoral pattern was broadly similar – the SNP took 35 seats out of 129 whilst Plaid took 17 out of 60. It is only since then that the paths have diverged so significantly.
There are many reasons for that electoral divergence, but they’re not particularly relevant here. The important thing is that the degree of divergence in electoral history between the two countries since 1999 leaves the two countries in very different circumstances.
Whilst support for independence in Scotland has varied over the years, it has been consistently higher than support for Welsh independence. Again, there are a number of possible reasons for that, but I cannot help but conclude that one of those reasons is that, in Scotland, the case has been regularly debated and promoted. There has been a political party in Scotland prepared to make the case, through thick and thin, whilst in Wales the advent of devolution and the need for nation-building (which, by the way, I don’t question per se) was used as a substitute for, rather than an adjunct to, making the case for the aim of independence. I don’t believe that any argument is ever won by not being made, and waiting for the people of Wales to come around to support for independence of their own accord – which is where much of the ‘national’ movement currently seems to be – looks like a recipe for never making it.
The result is that the future looks very different for the two nations, particularly in the light of Brexit. For all the optimism of independentistas, it is far from certain that Scotland will make the break and choose a European future rather than an isolationist British one. For their sakes, I hope that they do, even if such a move would leave Wales even more vulnerable to domination from our very much larger eastern neighbour. But we cannot be certain, and should not take the outcome for granted. We can, though, at least consider the impact on Wales of such an outcome.
I fear that, to return to my starting point, too many independentistas in Wales are reading across from Scotland to Wales, and hoping (or even assuming) that Scottish independence (and, with that, continued Scottish membership of the EU) will make Welsh independence more attractive and more likely. I can see why that might be the case in the context of continued UK membership of the EU, particularly if other European nations such as Catalunya follow a similar path. The parallel, particularly if those other nations (as seems likely) make a success of their choice, is clear enough. But the parallel in the case of a Wales which would have to face a significant transitional period outside the UK whilst seeking to negotiate entry to the EU as a new member is a great deal less obvious. I’d go so far as to say that it isn’t really a parallel at all; it would be, rather, a unique situation. As a result, people would naturally see it as being a great deal more risky.The assumption that a Scottish exit from the UK before Brexit happens will lead to a demand for the same thing in Wales is a lazy one. The danger is that, by making such an assumption, and through continued failure to make the case for Wales to take control of her own affairs, the likelier future for Wales in a UK shorn of Scotland and outside the EU is greater integration into England, especially in economic terms. Oh, I’m sure that we’ll be allowed to keep our little Assembly down in Cardiff, but our voice will be heard even less than it is now. The timescale for any change in direction to avert that outcome is short, and the clock is ticking.