Tuesday, 12 March 2019

We can't avoid the ideology

Last Friday’s Western Mail carried an article by Professor Martin Johnes of Swansea University, in which he said that we should start a more serious discussion of the question of Welsh independence in the light of the unusual times in which we find ourselves.  As he made very clear at the outset, this is not an article by a committed supporter of the concept of Welsh independence, rather an article by someone who, as he put it, has no problem with the principle but is unsure of the practicalities and can’t see any real point to it “unless it made Wales a wealthier and happier place”.  It’s a good starting point for debate, and I agree with him that “independence for independence’s sake” would be rather pointless.  I’ve argued the same thing myself in the past.  What matters is what we do with it.  And he’s absolutely right to be arguing that there need to be positive reasons for moving to independence rather than solely negative ones, let alone some sort of victim pleading.
I’m not sure that I agree, however, that ‘wealth and happiness’ are the only two criteria for assessment of the pluses and minuses, although the extent of my disagreement may well turn, to a significant extent, on what we mean by ‘wealth’ and ‘happiness’ and how we measure them.  Take ‘wealth’, for example: if an independent Wales were to end up with the same total wealth but distributed more equally, would that pass or fail the test for being ‘wealthier’?  Or, to put it another way, could building a fairer and more equal economy be of even more importance than simply building a wealthier one?  It might be argued that that would fit the ‘happiness’ test even if it doesn’t fit the ‘wealth’ one, but I suspect that, even to the limited extent to which wealth brings happiness, the impact of redistribution would be mixed.  And perhaps there are some additional criteria which we should consider as well rather than concentrate only on the difference it makes to us here in Wales: for instance, would the impact of Welsh independence on England and the wider world be positive or negative overall?  I can’t consider the question of independence solely in terms of its impact on Wales and those who live here.
The international impact is necessarily an unknown, of course, in advance of independence; and we will have different opinions on it depending on our view of the world.  But that brings me back even to the simpler criteria about wealth and happiness: to what extent can we really know in advance whether an independent Wales would be wealthier or happier?  The problem is that it isn’t ‘independence’ which makes the difference; it’s what we do with it once we have it.  Sticking entirely to the economic issue for a moment: with a certain amount of time and effort, I (or any other independentista) could produce a forecast for an independent Wales which would make it look a very attractive proposition.  And in the same way I (let alone any opponent of independence) could produce a forecast which makes Wales look like a complete basket case.  Which of the two would be ‘right’?  In the mathematical sense, probably both; assuming that mathematical operations have been correctly applied to the underlying assumptions about future policy in an independent Wales and the environment in which that policy would be implemented, there is no way of faulting either answer.  It is the assumptions which govern the result not the mathematics – so which set of assumptions is correct?  Clearly both cannot be correct; but it doesn’t follow that either one is – they could both be wrong, no matter how much good faith and effort is put into pinning them down.
In the real world, those assumptions would be replaced over time with actual hard decisions on policy, and that policy would be implemented under a particular set of external circumstances which are largely out of our control.  And even the very best assumptions cannot take account of completely unexpected events.  In effect, what I’m saying here is that a set of criteria, no matter how sensible and reasonable they are, which can only be fully objectively measured after the decision is implemented cannot be used in advance as a basis for making the decision.  If we say that ‘being wealthier or happier’ is our criterion, what we are really saying is that our criterion is ‘belief in the validity (or otherwise) of a particular set of assumptions’.  It cannot be otherwise.  And that is – and always will be – the problem at the heart of any debate about the economic impact of independence, or an attempt to use that impact as a basis for decision.  I don’t dismiss the importance of debate around those assumptions, or of attempting to convince people to agree with ‘our’ assumptions; but the desire for independence is inevitably going to be based on a great deal more than that.  In my own case, it stems from a set of principles and values which underpin my own world view, and I can’t reduce that to be just about wealth and happiness, however important those factors might be.  It’s about what sort of world we want to live in, and that isn’t easily translated into something which can be measured and assessed.  And that in turn means that, faced with a demand that I prove beyond doubt that an independent Wales will be wealthier or happier, I can’t.  I strongly believe that it would be, but to convince anyone else of that I need to start by convincing them of a whole series of other things which underpin that belief.  It is, ultimately, an ideological debate with economic consequences, not a simple economic one.

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