Thursday 18 May 2023

Who do we trust?


A few days ago, the Western Mail published an article by Mike Hedges, the Labour MS for Swansea East, setting out why he thinks independence for Wales is a bad idea. It was based, as the unionist case almost invariably seems to be, on the idea that Wales ‘can’t afford’ to be independent, and backed up with some examples of problems experienced by other countries which attained independence to demonstrate his point. His selection of examples, and of particular statistics from those examples, was, of course, highly selective. Nothing wrong with that per se; it didn’t purport to be an objective academic analysis, and lots of politicians on all sides of all debates choose their examples and statistics in such a way as to back their case, whilst ignoring or dismissing those which don’t. Independentistas do the same.

There are other ways of looking at the same thing, however. For all the difficulties he identifies for the examples he has so carefully chosen, how many of those countries said, after achieving independence, that they’d rather like to give up their independence and go back to how things were before? It’s a rhetorical question, of course. Or take another approach. In advance of achieving Welsh independence, the unionists regularly explain how their analysis of the economy ‘proves’ the impracticability of Welsh independence. But, to ask another rhetorical question, in how many cases of a country seeking independence has the state from which it seeks that independence NOT told them that economic analysis shows it to be impossible? The point is that any economic analysis which starts from the point of view of ‘what is’ will always show why the status quo is best – they’re hardly going to say it isn’t, are they?

We could try a little thought experiment here. Supposing, just for the sake of argument, that Glyndwr’s rebellion had been a success, that English aggression had been subdued, and that a rather larger Wales and the two parts of England under the Tripartite Indenture had lived alongside each other in peace and harmony for the last six centuries. How would things be different, purely considering economics? It strikes me as being unlikely that Wales would have allowed its natural resources to be plundered and the benefit and wealth extracted from the country to anything like the extent which happened in practice. I somehow doubt that Welsh society would be dramatically more egalitarian than English society (I’m not convinced that we’re actually as naturally socialist as I and many others would rather like to believe), so from the time of the Industrial Revolution, we would probably have had Welsh capitalists instead of English ones. The wealth would have flowed to the Welsh capital (Machynlleth initially, or maybe Merthyr after the establishment of the coal and steel industries) instead of the English capital. It would, though, largely have remained in Wales, and Wales’ GDP per head would be higher than it is as a result – probably roughly equivalent to that in England, even if not shared any more fairly.

Those outcomes would not have been inevitable, however. History doesn’t work that way. Let us suppose that the Welsh in general really are as innately stupid and incompetent as so many unionists would have us believe, and really could not have managed our resources and wealth any better. It’s a scenario in which the relative wealth and prosperity of England and Wales end up roughly as they are today, six centuries of independence having made no difference at all. Does anybody really believe that there would then be a great clamour from Wales demanding union with England as the ‘solution’ to the problem of our own mass stupidity? To put the question another way: if the union had not previously been brought about by military conquest, would we really invent it voluntarily?

I deliberately simplify, of course, by reducing it to such a simple question. Other outcomes – some sort of ‘Common Market’, or even ‘Single Market’ between the countries of these islands  look likelier, but any such arrangement would have been based on equals choosing to co-operate rather than on one imposing its will on the others. The broader point is that, in considering the question of independence, we all – unionists and independentistas alike – do so from the perspective of our own political standpoint. And that standpoint is coloured by and filtered by our own analysis of actual rather than theoretical history. We’re not capable of producing an economic analysis of independence without basing the numbers on a set of assumptions – and those assumptions are not shared. So any economic arguments produced by Mike Hedges can and will support and validate his own standpoint (and that of those who think like him) on the question, just as arguments produced by independentistas will support and validate our alternative standpoint. Neither group will ever convince the other on that basis, no matter how hard they try or how rigorous their analysis. And the truth is that neither group will get it right anyway: an independent Wales following its own path would fairly quickly demonstrate, whether for external reasons or simply from following an unpredicted path in terms of policies, that neither set of assumptions was entirely correct.

We should start from an acceptance that there are three possible economic outcomes to independence: it makes us better off, it makes us worse off, or it makes no difference, and there can be no certainties, only previous examples to guide us. The difference between those outcomes owes more to the policies implemented by the independent government than it does to the fact of independence in itself. The question then comes down to a very simple one – who do we trust most to resolve the issues facing us, ourselves or someone else? It’s a question which mere economics can never answer. As I recall, the late Iain McLeod once said, as the British Empire was busily disintegrating, that people generally prefer self-government to good government (‘good’ obviously being a synonym for ‘colonial’ in this context, patronising soul that he was). But even a Tory can get something half right occasionally.


Jonathan said...

Pleasure to read this post, Borthlas. I think that those of us who favour Indy must recognise the uncertainties and difficulties in going down the Indy path. The answer to "Who do we trust" has to be "ourselves". But this is the bit that's missing. For me the essentials are
(1) know-how. Getting Indy from the Westminster has been done many times, but we do need to learn the moves because they are not taught in school In law-schools, yes. Plus you need an Alexander Hamilton type who really gets trade/money/tax/debt. Like all the STEM subjects, Indy studies are hard.
(2) You need leaders with a kind of cussed gutsiness. They will be un-2023. They will be rare. They will not be perfect humans. We might find such people, but will Wales actually elect them? Noone can be a 100% fan of Israel including its Old Testament history. But Welsh Nationalists used to admire Israel-indy anyway. Israel produced Netanyahu, who is a modern successor of someone like Gideon and not everyone's cup of tea. Effective, though. Shall we try to get Wales to Dominion Status and then think again?

Anonymous said...

Given that modern day genetics is now showing that almost all people of Britain come from common stock and the Welsh language was the last of the main languages to arrive in this country, there doesn't seem much point in trying to flog the idea of independence because of 'difference'.

Better to show how and why things could be so much better under independent leadership, just as they do in other parts of the UK that are equally keen to separate from the whole.

John Dixon said...


I'm not entirely sure what point you're trying to make here. It doesn't need modern day genetics to understand that we are all, ultimately, descended from common ancestors in Africa. The genetics add a lot of interesting detail about how and when human populations reached different parts of the world, and how much they have subsequently mixed, but the idea that we are all of common stock is surely not in doubt. But what has any of that to do with the price of fish?

"...the Welsh language was the last of the main languages to arrive in this country" I don't know what your source for that is, but it's seriously wrong. The Celtic precursors of Welsh arrived well before the Germanic and Latin precursors of English; and all are ultimately descended from Indo-European. But again, what does that have to do with the price of fish?

"... there doesn't seem much point in trying to flog the idea of independence because of 'difference'" I'm not trying to "flog the idea of independence because of 'difference'", and I don't understand why you might think I am. You seem to have started with a preconception of what independentistas believe and then set out to destroy your own straw man; but that also has little to do with the price of fish.

"Better to show how and why things could be so much better under independent leadership" Not sure why you might think that I disagree with that, but the point made in the post is that (in relation to economics at least) is isn't - and can never be - quite as simple as that. All such attempts inevitably have to start from a set of assumptions, and those assumptions depend on opinion rather than on unarguable fact.

Anonymous said...

'The Celtic precursors of Welsh arrived well before the Germanic and Latin precursors of English; and all are ultimately descended from Indo-European.'

Celts never lived in Britain, nor Ireland for that matter, not never ever. This is why there isn't a Celtic genetic marker in the population. Granted, the Welsh language may have originated with the Celts but it never arrived in Britain until well after Old English. So far as we are aware, Gaelic is the oldest language in this part of the world.

John Dixon said...


Alternative opinions I can cope with; alternative facts rather less so.

"Celts never lived in Britain, nor Ireland" There is no doubt that Celtic culture, along with an early celtic language, reached these islands, although precisely when is a matter of some uncertainty. But it was certainly thousands of years BCE. Whether the change in culture was mirroring a change in population or merely reflects the adoption of new cultures by existing populations is an interesting debate which genetics can help us resolve, but it is ultimately irrelevant to the fact that the Celtic culture was indeed adopted. That culture included languages, and those languages developed over time. However it came about, 'Celtic' languages, from both the Goidelic and Brythonic branches, were the languages used in these islands well before the Romans arrived.

"the Welsh language ... never arrived in Britain until well after Old English" This, I'm afraid, is just nonsense, not least because neither Welsh nor English 'arrived' in these islands at all; they both developed here. Both have reasonable claims to being native developments, albeit in distinct areas. Welsh developed from Brythonic roots and English from Germanic roots. Those Brythonic roots were here thousands of years before the Romans, the Germanic roots arrived with the Vikings, Angles and Saxons after the Romans left (and, again, the question of whether the subsequent language shift was by population displacement or cultural assimilation is an interesting one, but irrelevant to the current context). That is simply historical fact.

The question, though, remains: what has any of this to do with the price of fish? Claiming that 'our' language is older than 'your' language might make for a mildly interesting if pointless argument. But it is utterly irrelevant to any debate about identity or independence, as is any question about the genetic differences in which you seem to be so interested.