Thursday, 22 February 2018

The context for independence

In recent months, I’ve been asked more than once “why do you keep banging on about Brexit?”.  The answer, in a nutshell, is because it shapes the context in which we have to consider the prospects for Welsh independence.  It’s not that I consider the EU to be ideal; there is much in the critique published on Nation.Cymru a few days ago with which I could agree, even if I felt that parts of it were way over the top.  The situation we face, though, isn’t simply ‘EU – yes or no’; we have to consider what the alternatives are, something which I felt that article failed to do.
There are, it seems to me, three realistically possible outcomes from the current Brexit process.  The first is a complete hard break putting the UK outside all the EU’s structures and processes, the second is an agreement similar to that enjoyed by Norway (which is Brexit in name only, and achieves almost none of the stated objectives of leaving the EU), and the third is a change of direction and a decision to remain.  For the purposes of considering Welsh independence, the second and third are so similar that I won’t distinguish between them for the purposes of this post.
Under the first option there will inevitably be a hard border between the area subject to the EU’s rules and England.  Which side of that border Scotland sits depends on political processes there; a vote for independence would at least give them the option.  Which side of the border Northern Ireland sits is also an open question; the difference is that it won’t be decided by the people of Northern Ireland, it will be imposed upon them by the government of England.  Whether England obliges them to accept a hard border with the Republic or distances them economically from itself by creating a sea border between the island of Great Britain and the island of Ireland is uncertain at this point, but the idea that they themselves will have any real influence on the decision is illusory.
For Wales, there is no question at all; we will be on the same side of the border as England.  EnglandandWales will be the economic reality with which we are faced.  There are those who argue that Wales could, at some future point, decide to become independent and then re-join the EU.  I buy the first part of that, but not the second.  A Wales which has spent some time – probably decades – locked in an economic union in which England is the only trading partner with which completely frictionless trade is possible will inevitably become more integrated with that economy whilst the links with EU members weaken.  That in turn will make it harder and harder to envisage moving outside that border and establishing a hard border along Offa’s Dyke (which would be the inevitable consequence of joining the EU separately from the more isolationist economic position of England).  In short, the economic relationship with England constrains and defines the degree of independence which is realistically possible.
There’s a more general point there; membership of any economic union constrains and defines the degree of independence which is realistically possible.  And I understand why that leads some independentistas to support Brexit.  But their mistake, in my view, is to believe that Brexit reduces those constraints and makes it easier; to me the opposite seems much more likely.  Changing the administrative and political arrangements within a continuing economic framework whilst the ‘external’ borders stay the same will always be easier than switching between two different economic frameworks and replacing one set of external borders with another.
'Independence' is not a concept which is or can be clearly defined once and for all.  What 'independence' means changes over time, and depends entirely on context.  The question facing independentistas is about what type and degree of independence is preferable; that which is possible within a Europe of 30 or more states, or that which is possible when closely tied to England alone?  Do we want Wales to be part of an open Europe or part of a closed UK, albeit perhaps on a more federal basis?  I think the answer is clear; but Brexit as preferred by the ideologues rules out that option.  That, ultimately, is why Brexit is such a continuing theme on this blog.

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