Thursday, 8 August 2019

A small step, a giant leap, or a step in the dark?

The admission by the former First Minister that “We are not too poor to be independent” is a hugely significant shift in the debate about the future of Wales.  It’s not that there’s anything particularly new or radical in the statement itself; it’s merely a statement of the obvious plain truth.  The significance is that it marks a change from the position that the Labour Party has taken for decades which is to use the lie of being too poor as an excuse to avoid debate about the desirability or otherwise of Welsh independence.  For a significant individual in the traditionally dominant party in Wales to renounce the lie is to remove one of the biggest obstacles to holding a sensible and rational debate about our future.  Renouncing the lie also makes the rest of what he has to say more credible.
He expressed concern about the length of time which it took Ireland between gaining independence and becoming the successful economy which it is today.  It’s a valid concern, although there is always a problem in trying to work out the counterfactual: in this case, whilst we know the economic trajectory of Ireland after gaining independence, we don’t know what would have happened had Ireland remained a part of the UK.  The trajectory of Wales over the same period doesn’t give me huge confidence in any suggestion that it would have been better.  And Liz Saville Roberts also pointed out that the record of the Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) post-independence provides a rather different model.  Judging which is the best analogy for Wales is not straightforward, coloured as it inevitably is by our own prejudices and priors.  No two countries ever follow exactly the same path, but for what it’s worth, I rather suspect that Welsh independence inside the EU would be closer to the Baltic model and I fear that outside the EU it might well turn out to be closer to the Irish model.  Whatever, we know the difficulties with economic forecasting and the underlying assumptions which need to be made and which lead to different projected outcomes - and in all cases, the comparison we need to make is with an assumption that our current relative position continues.
Unlike some, I see nothing unpatriotic or anti-Welsh in the position now being adopted by the former First Minister in arguing that whilst independence isn’t impossible due to poverty, it is undesirable on other grounds.  The idea that every ‘nation’ must be reflected constitutionally in an entirely independent state is an idea which belongs to the eighteenth century, despite being central to the ideology of the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all driving Brexit.  I can and do disagree with the idea that Wales’ interests are best served inside a reformed UK, but I don’t see anything dishonourable or unpatriotic in making that argument.
The question, though, is where we go from here.  The problem with the First Minister’s position is not that there is anything inherently wrong with a ‘remain and reform’ agenda for the UK, it is about putting the flesh on the bones.  How can the nations of the UK develop a ‘more equal partnership’, as he puts it, when one of the ‘partners’ accounts for 85% of the population?  This is the rock on which all proposals for federalism founder; any arrangement which gives 15% equality with 85% in decision-making will always be regarded as undemocratic by the 85%.  And in a situation where the politics of the 85% is dominated by an Anglo-British nationalism based on a belief in their own superiority and an exceptionalism which drives them to claim that their form of nationalism is ‘not-nationalism-at-all’ because nationalism is only for lesser nations, what is the process which leads either to changing that, or else accepting that it’s time to pass through the exit door?
Carwyn Jones took a small step for a man which could turn into a giant leap for his party, but they still don’t give the impression that they have thought very deeply about where to place the next step.

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