Thursday, 13 October 2022

Never is a very long time


The First Minister, Mark Drakeford, has been reported today as saying that he will never support independence, but believes that “decisions that affect only people in Wales [should be] taken only by people in Wales”. At first sight, it’s a neat turn of phrase which sounds like a commitment to a lot more devolution of powers to Wales. On closer analysis, however, it's far from being as clear as that, because there are few decisions currently taken by the Welsh government which meet a strict interpretation of his rule. Some health services, for instance, are accessed on a cross-border basis – decisions taken in Wales will affect some people in England, just as decisions taken in England will affect some people in Wales. In the field of education, many Welsh students choose to study at English universities, just as many English students choose to study in Wales – decisions taken in Wales won’t just affect people living in Wales. We could go through a whole host of devolved areas and find that there are few decisions which can be said to have ‘no’ impact on people living outside Wales: a statement by Drakeford which sounds like a call for more devolution could be interpreted as a justification for rolling back what has already been devolved.

Anyone seeking to use it that way would be well advised to exercise a little caution, however, because the same could be said for many decisions taken by the UK Government. Foreign policy, defence and overseas aid are obvious examples, but trade policy, immigration policy and many other areas of government also lead to decision-taking which does not ‘only’ affect people in the UK. Does that mean that UK independence is an impossibility? In a sense, yes it does. What Drakeford has touched on, perhaps inadvertently, is that we live in a world which is increasingly interdependent, and where any government which ever takes any decisions is likely to be impacting others outside its jurisdiction. It’s why, for many years, many independentistas preferred the term interdependence or ‘full national status’ to the word independence; either are a better description of the status any country seeking to be a good member of the international community would seek.

It turns out, though, that taking some decisions individually, some co-operatively through negotiation, and some by pooling sovereignty with others is precisely what ‘independence’ actually means to most states in the modern world; the issue is deciding which decisions are taken where. The UK, as a state trying to assert its own unique right to decide everything and to take back both pooled and devolved powers to itself, is very much an outlier, and the consequences are becoming clearer daily. If the First Minister was trying to say something along those lines, he may find that he is not as far away from many independentistas as his assertion that he will ‘never’ support independence suggests. It’s more a difference of opinion about the detail of what should be decided where and how Wales’ input is made. The biggest difference of perspective is probably about whether we start with the UK as a given and argue about why any powers should not remain at that level, which should be devolved and which should be pooled (with, for instance, the EU), or whether we start from the tabula rasa perspective that the continued existence of the UK and its exercise of power in particular areas needs to be justified on a case by case business. That’s no small difference in perspective, of course, but neither is it necessarily as great as Drakeford’s words suggest. And ‘never’ is a very long time – is he really telling us that in the event of Irish reunification and Scottish independence, his mind would remain closed to any suggestion that Wales should seek any status other than that of being subservient to Westminster, relying on powers which can only ever be ‘loaned’ to Wales?

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