The conservative case for Welsh Independence

[This article first appeared on 16th July 2020 on ‘Gwydir’, the blog of the Cardiff University Conservative Association which is not affiliated with the Conservative Party. It will hopefully be obvious that neither are we.]

From the perspective of anyone with conservative inclinations, Independence for Wales can seem like the wokest of woke causes. It often looks like even those most associated with it in the public mind – Plaid Cymru, the longest-established nationalist party, in particular – regard it as just one of a host of other fashionable causes, from fighting this-or-that-phobia to remaining in the EU.

Meanwhile, more conservative people often look at Welsh Independence as undesirable, impossible, or both. They look at the magnitude of Wales’s fiscal deficit. They note the depth of economic integration between Wales and the rest of the UK. They reflect on the centuries of cultural interaction across our long and porous border. They conclude that it’s best to leave things as they are, or even that it would be better to turn back time – to before there was even Devolution.

But dig a little deeper, and it becomes clear that Welsh Independence is a profoundly conservative idea. There’s every reason why conservatives should be at the forefront of the campaign for it.

Four words and four loves

At its root, the conservative case for independence can be stated in just four words: Wales is a nation.

This is undeniably true. Anyone who crosses the border in either direction becomes conscious of the differences immediately: different landscapes, different placenames, different townscapes. And it is never clearer than in sport, where people will cheer their national side on with a passion that no ‘GB’ or ‘UK’ team can ever excite.

C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books and much else besides.

The great conservative philosopher C.S. Lewis put it like this, when writing above ‘love of country’ in his 1960 book “The Four Loves”:

“Note that at its largest this is, for us, a love of England, Wales, Scotland, or Ulster. Only foreigners and politicians talk about ‘Britain.’”

And if conservatives believe in anything, it is the importance of the nation-state.

This is what the most significant arguments over Brexit were about – is it good for a nation to be independent, or is it better for its identity to be diluted in a larger political union? The answer to that question came back loud and clear.

That’s why we in Gwlad believe that every argument for Brexit is also an argument for Welsh independence, and vice versa.

Not (as some still argue) so that an independent Wales could re-join the EU – that ship has sailed – but because Brexit has established that the future belongs to the nation-state, but we need to be clear what that means, and what its implications are.

This point is not lost on Conservative voters in England. A remarkable recent YouGov poll (published on 30th June) has established that support for English independence among Conservative voters runs at 49%, much higher than the figure for supporters of any other party or the 35% figure for English voters as a whole.

So “should Wales be an independent country?” is the wrong question for a conservative to ask.

The questions that matter are “can Wales be an independent country?” and “if Wales were an independent country, how could it be kept from being the badly-run one-party state that it’s been for the last 23 years since Devolution?”

Can Wales be independent?

A cursory glance at any list of the world’s independent countries shows that there’s effectively no limit on how small a country can be. Whether you look at thing in terms of land area, population, or both, there are many successful small independent countries.

To pull a relatively random sample together, Iceland, Luxembourg, Malta and Singapore are all much smaller than Wales, and serious doubts were expressed about the viability of both of the latter when they first left the UK’s control. Today each of them have higher GDP-per-head and living standards than the UK itself.

The more serious question about Wales’s viability has to do with its ‘fiscal deficit’, the fact that there is more government spending in Wales every year than the amount raised in taxes.

This is a genuine issue, but the extent of it is often exaggerated: for example, under current definitions, government spending in Wales is deemed to include Wales’s contributions to HS2 and the pensions and healthcare costs of English retirees living in Wales – neither of which would need to be borne by Wales if it were independent.

[And that does not mean that the English retirees would be kicked out – far from it – but simply that their pensions and healthcare costs would be charged back to Westminster, just as they would be if they’d retired to France or Spain.]

The rest of Wales’s economic woes arise simply from its lack of GDP growth. This has been almost zero since the Labour Party started administering the country in 1999. If Wales were able to grow at the rate of any normal small country, then the miracle of compound interest would get rid of the remainder of the deficit in less than a decade.

Can Wales be run well?

So the most pertinent question of all is, can the Labour Party be dislodged from the hegemony that it’s held in Wales, at every level of government, for over 100 years?

So far, the nearest that’s come to happening was in the elections of 2007, the first time when Labour failed to win an overall majority in both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.

It’s instructive to compare what happened in the two countries.

In Scotland, the SNP collaborated with the Conservatives and went into government, where they have held power ever since and effectively vanquished Labour as a political force. Even people who disagree with the SNP’s politics would concede that they’ve done a good job of providing competent day-to-day governance. Moreover, the extinction of the Scottish Labour Party helps the Conservatives’ cause in England no end.

In Wales, there could have been a ‘Rainbow Coalition’ of the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats, probably led by Plaid Cymru as the largest of those three parties.

Instead, during the negotiations a renegade group of Plaid AMs, led by Adam Price (at the time an MP rather than an AM, and long before he became Plaid leader himself), flatly refused to work with the Conservatives and instead made their own deal with Labour.

The direct outcome of that was to cement Labour in power for another 14 years. Since their high-water mark, Plaid have lost a third of their support both in vote share and in seats won and the Conservatives have overtaken them as the second largest party in what is now the Welsh Parliament. Even so, the Conservatives have not come close to the levels of support that Plaid had before 2007.

Yet the spectacular success of the Brexit Party in 2019’s European elections, pushing Labour into third place and the Conservatives into fourth, shows that there is a hunger for change.

We in Gwlad believe that a conservative pro-independence party, willing to work with the Conservatives and Plaid if need be but totally committed to ending Labour’s long misrule, is what’s needed to break the log-jam and open up a new era of multi-party politics in Wales.

Welsh Tories

A lazy assumption which is often made is that Wales is somehow a naturally socialist country in which conservative ideas will always sit uneasily. This is nonsense.

It is however true that the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’ carries a great deal of baggage which prevents it from reaching the levels of support that it otherwise might.

Partly this is down to history. Even in the 19th Century, before there was such a thing as a Labour Party, Welsh voters consistently backed Gladstone’s Liberalism over Disraeli’s Toryism. Disraeli’s Tory Party, however radical it was in practice, was forever tainted by its association with the landowners and ironmasters and got little credit for its social reforms.

After Winston Churchill sent in the army against striking miners in Tonypandy in 1910, even though he himself was a member of the Liberal Party at the time, the personal antipathy towards him felt by many Valleys voters was transferred to the Conservatives when he joined them in 1924.

Against this background, few remembered that Harold Wilson had in fact closed many more coalmines in the 1960s and 70s than Mrs. Thatcher did in the 1980s, and she was seen simply as standing in the same tradition as Churchill.

Throughout all this time there was an abiding sense that the Conservative Party was not really interested in Wales, and found it tedious to have to attend to its particular circumstances.

Yet despite all this there is a much older strand of authentically Welsh Toryism that runs deep. No-one has described this better than H.W.J. Edwards (Harri ab Iorwerth to his friends), who was one of Plaid Cymru’s most influential thinkers from the 1950s to the 1970s.

In his classic 1975 work “Sons of the Romans – The Tory as Nationalist” (which has a preface by Enoch Powell, of all people), he sets out a vision of Welsh Toryism which draws on the history and literature of several centuries and stresses above all its essential continuity – “tyf yr hyn sydd o’r hyn a fu” (‘what is, grows from what was’).

He leaves one in no doubt that there is a latent well of conservative feeling and sympathy in Wales, which the Conservative Party has never successfully drawn upon.

Welsh Toryism

So what would an authentic 21st Century pro-independence Welsh Toryism look like? What would its policies be?

Here are some of Gwlad’s: we believe most people of a conservative inclination would recognise the thinking behind them and feel comfortable espousing them:

We believe that these policies, and the philosophy that lies behind them, ought to commend itself to all those in Wales who consider themselves conservative.

Gwlad – The Welsh Independence Party – is an authentically conservative movement which can reach the parts of Wales that will forever be closed to the Conservative Party.

13 thoughts on “The conservative case for Welsh Independence

  1. Why the ‘Mrs’ Thatcher honorific so beloved by the most egregious of anglosupremacist Conservatives from Jim Davidson to the Mail? It’s even more glaring when no other prime minister is given the same treatment in the article.

  2. Steady on; ‘Mrs’ is hardly an honorific (if we’d wanted to use one of those we could have called her ‘Lady’, though of course the title came later).

    It’s simply how she’s referred to in common speech, especially among Conservative and ex-Conservative voters who are the target audience for this article.

    1. The usage does take on the role of a de facto honorific when she alone is singled out for such treatment amongst equivalent individuals in an article. Why not buck the trend? The case would be no less made to Conservative voters by exercising consistency in naming for all PMs discussed. In singling her out for ‘titling’, and granted I’m only speaking for myself here, it just smacks of Richard Littlejohn-esque Daily Mail jingoism.

      1. I honestly think it is just you, I’m afraid, David! For my part I’ve never read anything by Richard Littlejohn.

        I will add this, though. Referring to Margaret Thatcher as “Mrs Thatcher” does at least reinforce the point that she was the UK’s first woman Prime Minister. In fact both the first and second (and so far, only) woman Prime Ministers of the UK have been Conservatives. Just as the first Jewish Prime Minister was, for that matter (Disraeli). And the first Catholic (Boris Johnson, believe it or not, who also had a Muslim great-grandfather). And I strongly expect the first BAME (awful term) Prime Minister will be as well (I wouldn’t bet against Rishi Sunak as Boris Johnson’s eventual replacement).

        This matters because while the Left bloviates all the time about equal opportunities, anti-sexism, anti-racism and heaven knows what else, it’s the Right that gets on and does it. And I strongly expect that the same will prove true of independence for Wales. The Left can prattle on about it all it likes, but when it happens it will be a right-of-centre party that delivers it. That’s my prediction, anyway.

        1. Well it’s your blog and I can only comment for myself, but in invoking Littlejohn, Davidson and the Daily Mail and the like I am attempting to convey an archetype that this particular word choice chimes with for me, that is not to say that you’re attempting to ape these sources in any way. First woman PM or not, I’ve always had a pet peeve about this usage because it does strike me as snivelling, but I’ve never heard anything on the matter from anyone else so it is as far as I know, just my opinion.

          I don’t know the full list of PMs since the year dot, but I’d still argue that the ‘diversity’ turned out by the Tories is an artefact of them having been in power most of the time. If we’re talking minorities, as the Welsh and Scots are within Britain as a whole, the Liberals gave us Lloyd George and Nü Labour Gordon Brown, so it’s probably in proportion considering time spent in government.

          1. I’ll also add that while I do commend your notion of a ‘big tent’ approach to indy, and therein Gwlad’s mission of offering voters an alternative to Plaid (and the ridiculousness they seem to embrace these days), but I feel a secessionist movement such as ours will always more naturally align to radical/left wing sentiment. We currently exist in a state where wealth and opportunity is largely spirited away elsewhere, and is not the very nature of conservatism in retaining the status quo, resistance to radical change, and the like? Statuses don’t get more ‘quo’ than 800 years of incorporation into the political machinery of our larger neighbour!

          2. There’s a big discussion to be had there over whether secessionist movements are ‘intrinsically’ right or left, but that’s a topic for another day.

            Either way, the facts on the ground are that over the last 20 years there’s been about a 10% swing in electoral support away from Plaid Cymru and towards the Conservatives. Let that sink in for a moment. And this is against a background of sharply rising support for independence in principle. Plaid Cymru show no interest at all in chasing those lost voters; but unless someone does, how is the independence movement ever going to reach its full strength?

            [Hot tip: look out for an article about this by Sian Caiach coming up on Thursday].

  3. I look forward to the article. And no, there’s a reason why I stopped short of writing that secessionist movements organically gravitate towards the Left, because of course there are the innumerable USSR secessions and satellite states that have turned towards a market economy, and for the better, over the last 30 years or so.

    You make a good point about the decline of Plaid, and what finally did it for me with them was that tone-deaf campaign or promotional material featuring that girl in the burka who it transpired turned out to be an anti-Semite. It clashes and bangs against the social conservativism of many Welsh people who haven’t been as readily exposed to such dress that flies in the face of Western values of openness and gender equality, as say your Tower Hamlets denizen.

    However, I’d postulate that the swing to the Conservatives is a manifestation of grievance, of feeling ‘left behind’, in a two sides of the same coin sort of sense as to why the voters are drawn to Labour. Labour sell themselves as being all about those ‘left behind’, and every protagonist needs their antagonist to play against, just like every comic needs a foil.

    For Labour, the bogeyman in the minds of their voters are them evil Tories in London. For the Conservatives, their voters, at least in recent years, see that bogeyman as the EU. The same politics is at play, that of grievance and feeling left behind by elites, screwed over by big business, globalism, whatever particular crescent moon slice of the Venn diagarm this dissatisfaction comes in, and isn’t that sort of sentiment the seeds from which Marxism, revolution, uprising of the masses and the like grows?

    1. I think you’re right about the “protagonist/antagonist” dynamic.

      It seems to me that a clear tactic of the anti-devolution movement is to say “Vote for us (the protagonists) because we’re the only people who can save you from those nasty far-left nationalists (i.e. the antagonists)”.

      And therefore, it’s useful to be able to counter that argument by saying “hang about; what nasty far-left nationalists? We’re nationalists but we’re as pro-market and centre-right as any of you. Heck, we can even be polite when we talk about Mrs. Thatcher”.

      That way, we can deflect their ire towards it’s appropriate target, the Labour politicians (themselves Unionists to a man) who’ve been trashing our economy these last 20+ years.

      Either that, or we expose them as not being interested in free markets or good governance after all, but simply being blood-and-soil British Nationalists. Some of them probably are; but at least then it will be plain for all to see, as they’ll have nowhere to hide.

      1. An interesting angle on the whole “Mrs Thatcher” thing. After all, OK the usage does irk me, but it was never a hill I’d have died on. After all, what is little old me taking a bit of an exception to a three letter word when compared the potential for what can be gained by its use as a small, bite-size example to demonstrate to people of that political bent that they have a home with Gwlad?

        I’ve made the case before that those of small government sort of inclinations should really, if they have a think about it, strongly consider the logic of a Welsh state and how it would align to their beliefs better than distant and unaccountable overlords in ivory towers in London.

        Perhaps the biaxial spectral graph thing needs to be made into a cube to better model the nature of Welsh politics today. The third axis would be one of unionist – nationalist. Perhaps a this concept could form the basis of an easily digested infographic deployed on this site somewhere, or a discussion could form the basis of a blog entry? Jist an idea anyway.

        1. That’s quite a good idea David; I’ll have a word with Aled and see if we can do anything with it.

          1. Another suggestion as a basis for an article might be one on those of us who live our lives in a cross-border manner. I do so myself and I’ve gathered you do too if I’m not mistaken. It will do good to emphasise the points of being the beneficiary of two distinct nations versus homogenising Britishness, and to quash the usual “You all hate the English” bollocks. Incidentally, come the day and that, if it were available to me I’d love to opt for dual Anglo-Welsh citizenship.

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