TAKE BACK CONTROL? WELSH INDEPENDENCE IN AN AGE OF BREXIT

By Jonathan Lee

I am a reluctant Welsh Republican. By this, I mean that I believe the realisation of an independent Welsh Republic will inevitably be the only way Wales can truly prosper and develop long term. But I’m uneasy about it.

I doubt the competency of our devolved government, while I question the motives and sincerity of the British government. I’m hoping that somewhere down the line, a government in Westminster will change my mind, but looking at the way things are going, the Tories’ vision of a dystopian, post-Brexit Britain doesn’t offer me much hope.

Like many who grew up in Wales, I was brought up in an environment of class-oriented patriotism that was as fierce as it was vague and misdirected. A blind dismissal of England and the hallmarks of Englishness manifested itself throughout Welsh life. No one could really define Welshness, but they could tell you what it wasn’t, and everyone was proud of it nonetheless. It is a common but unfortunate symptom of colonialism that the culture of the colonised becomes defined in opposition to that of the coloniser. Wales defines itself, in part, by not being England.

During our teenage years, many of us begin to harbour some notion aspiring to Welsh independence. It is during our time at comprehensive school that we learn the most about Welsh history and politics, and normally we begin to be infected with the Rugby Union fever that consumes much of the nation annually. By the time we emerge into adulthood, these ideas have been tempered by economic realities and in-group dynamics that tell us Welsh independence is an unrealistic, nationalist pipe dream. For the most part, this is a blunt but accurate assessment.

In 2014 – 2015, Wales had a budget deficit of £15 billion, nearly a quarter of our Gross Domestic Product, meaning £15 billion more in public money was spent than was raised in taxes. The Welsh government’s response to the decimation of heavy industry has been to replace job losses in the manufacturing sector with jobs in the public sector. Nowadays, approximately one-third of working people in Wales are employed in the public sector, making the Welsh economy increasingly dependent on the continuing flow of cash from Westminster.

In the past, I have often toed the line: opting in favour of full Welsh devolution whilst remaining a constituent partner of the United Kingdom. I have now come to realise that with the nature of the Union as it stands, Wales can never play the role of an equal ‘partner’ whilst being so dependent on Westminster’s whims, demands and handouts. The relationship is an abusive and uneven one where political quasi-autonomy means Wales gets run roughshod over by a political establishment who have divested themselves of responsibility. When it comes right down to it, if the British government wants one thing, and the Welsh government and people of Wales another, Wales loses out every time. The inadequacy of the Welsh Assembly’s ability to stand up for Welsh interests has been made abundantly clear, painfully so in the last year.

The Secretary of State for Wales, an outdated position held by men who seem to show nothing but disdain for Welsh self-determination of any kind, has been at the centre of much of the recent controversy. Our man: Alun Cairns.

A Tory who once referred to Italians with a slur, Cairns opposes the ban on fox hunting and is against the construction of wind farms off the coast of Porthcawl. He is also one of 72 MPS who voted against a Parliamentary amendment on “fit for human habitation” rental homes, whilst themselves being landlords who gained income from rented properties.

Cairns has been the bearer of bad news throughout the last twelve months, first announcing the decision to scrap the rail electrification of the South Wales line (promised in 2012 by David Cameron) past Cardiff last summer. Whilst withholding investment and technology in South Wales, the UK government refuse to devolve rail infrastructure to the Welsh Assembly, against the recommendations of the Commission on Devolution in Wales.

In spring this year, the Welsh Secretary was also at the centre of the Severn Bridge fiasco, which saw the bridge renamed without public consultation to “The Prince of Wales Bridge”. After a petition against the change reached over 38,000 signatures, and a YouGov poll showed only 17% approval for the name change, the bridge was renamed anyway in a covert ceremony this summer without press release or public attendance.

This summer, Cairns was dubbed the “grim reaper” of Welsh politics over his mishandling of the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, which was similarly scrapped following an 18 month delay in Westminster. Despite earlier promises, and significant investment from the private sector and the Welsh government, the Tories decided against the creation of a new renewable sector in Wales. On the same day, Parliament approved the £14 billion additional runway at Heathrow Airport. The CEO of Tidal Lagoon Power summed up the decision as “a vote of no interest in Wales, no confidence in British manufacturing and no care for the planet.” The tidal lagoon would have been a world-first in large scale renewable energy, creating an exportable, expert knowledge base on tidal lagoon industry technology in Britain. It would have invested £1.3 billion in Welsh and British industry through its construction, created thousands of jobs, and added an additional £76 million to the Welsh economy in each of its 120 years of operation. Additionally, the lagoon would generate 320MW of electricity per day: enough to power the equivalent of 155,000 homes.

Instead, the UK government went for the nuclear option and invested £5 billion in the construction of a new nuclear power plant at Wylfa, Anglesey, reversing previous government policy of not directly investing in new nuclear energy in Britain. The construction of the plant will, of course, be outsourced to a private sector US-Japanese consortium.

At the same time, it was decided that over 300,000 tonnes of radioactive mud excavated from Hinkley Point nuclear power plant in Somerset was to be dumped into Cardiff Bay (through private tender to EDF). This was despite expert warnings about the possibility of the radioactive material re-concentrating and affecting wildlife in the littoral zone. The 30-year-long regeneration of Cardiff Bay has resulted in remarkably good water quality, with the Taff River being possibly the only capital city river in Europe to spawn salmon, a fish notoriously sensitive to pollution levels. Once again, the environment, economy, and interests of Wales are secondary to projects that provide for the “greater good” of the United Kingdom. In return, Wales gets enough core funding to keep things ticking over, and piecemeal concessions in the devolution process – which allows responsibility for failings in the country to be outsourced to a devolved government.

According to the latest polls, around a quarter of the nation are in favour of independence. One poll, which was taken before the general election, indicated that this number would rise to one-third should the Conservative party increase their majority in Westminster. This demonstrates the problem with this kind of polling, as well as the debate around independence: respondents are easily swayed by the wording of options and the number of options presented. Most would not indicate they are in favour of a separation of Wales from the Union without more information on what it would entail. As soon as caveats are added relating to the European Union and the political makeup of Westminster, the results change drastically.

For some reason, independence is always framed as a black or white issue. Whilst I genuinely believe that eventually, Wales will have to stand on its own two feet to overcome the legacy of colonialism, I don’t believe that support for independence should be viewed in the same way that Brexit is by those who wish to leave the European Union. A prosperous, independent, decolonised Wales should be an ambition on the horizon that Welsh politics strives towards. It should not be taken in a rash referendum at a time when the country is so utterly dependent on the Union to scrape by.

In the post-Brexit landscape, it would be ambitious to hope that the British government will plug the £680 million per year funding gap left by the EU. The West and the South Wales Valleys, already amongst the poorest regions in all of Europe, will no doubt suffer for the decision to vote Leave in 2016. It therefore becomes even more imperative to pursue a new kind of politics this side of the Severn. Policies that preserve the status quo, which have been broadly employed by Welsh Labour since the creation of the Welsh Assembly, cannot continue, especially while a Conservative government so committed to ideological austerity sits in Parliament at Westminster. Many would be swung towards the independence vote purely on the possibility of EU membership. Maybe after a few years in the Tories’ post-Brexit Britain, some of my compatriots can be persuaded to change their mind about the Union – both the one on this island and on the continent.

Featured image credit: David Meenagh


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