In contemplating this article I thought long and hard about the order of the words “can’t” and “Wales” in the title. Should I swap them around and make it a statement? Or have them as they are and leave it as a question?
However it’s framed, it’s a subject that needs addressing.
It warmed my heart last weekend to see the crowds milling in the sunny streets of Cardiff, with the Tudor green-and-white and Glyndŵr’s red-and-gold banners flapping in the breeze (though my favourite photo from the event remains the one of John Batchelor, ‘The Friend of Freedom’, clutching his Yes Cymru banner).
A great deal has been written already, interpreting its significance, and more will be yet – but one perspective that particularly caught my eye was this account by Martin Johnes, a history lecturer at Swansea University: “I told a friend I was going to a march for Welsh independence and she asked ‘independent from what?’ The majority of people in Wales simply do not regard themselves as living in an unfree country; they do not see the British state as an alien imposition.”
And as things stand today this is undeniably true, and has been since at least the early 19th Century – as Simon Brooks has also argued so eloquently in his book “Why Wales Never Was”.
So those of us who advocate Welsh independence need to take this question seriously. What is it, exactly, about being in the United Kingdom that is bad for Wales and its people? What could we have outside it, that we can’t have inside it? And why?
At the most basic level there is of course the cultural aspect; independence gives any nation, no matter what its circumstances and problems, a boost in self-confidence and ambition like nothing else. In Islwyn Ffowc Elis’s classic Welsh time-travel novel, Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd (A Week in Future Wales), 1950s Welshman Ifan Powell finds himself, in the year 2033, having dinner in Cardiff with Dr. Alfan Llywarch, the very well-connected Professor of Metadynamics at Cardiff University, the Bavarian Ambassador Mr. Baecker, and the Friesland Ambassador Mr. Telting. After Baeker has let his wine go to his head a little…
Llywarch told him to drink his wine quietly, and turned to Telting to discuss some measure which was to be brought before parliament the following day. I cut across them.
“Which parliament are you talking about?”
Llywarch looked at me.
“Our parliament, of course. The Welsh Parliament. Forgive me, I’d forgotten. Wales didn’t have a Parliament when you began your journey. I’ll take you to see it at the beginning of the week.”
“Is it a success?” I asked.
All three of them were looking at me blankly.
“That is,” I said then, feeling I’d rather put my foot in it, “is it better for Wales with its own parliament than it was without it?”
“Is there any way it can be worse for a country to be under its own parliament, than to be under a foreign parliament?” asked Telting.
Good question. Looking around at the countries who have achieved their independence over the past century or so, it is very hard to find an example of any that have fared worse, or grown more slowly, than the one they left. Some of the examples are quite stunning. Since the “velvet divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, Slovakia has gone from having just 60% of Czech GDP-per-head to very nearly the same, having enjoyed 25 years of much faster economic growth. Since achieving independence a little over a century ago, Norway has gone from being a poor province of Sweden to having a GDP-per-head 40% higher than its former ruler, something which certainly can’t be explained by North Sea Oil alone. Iceland and Finland have similar stories to tell.
Even countries that made a shaky start in the years immediately after independence – such as India while it was still governed by the socialist policies of the Congress Party, or Ireland while it was still a semi-fascist state under Éamon de Valera – have powered ahead in recent decades, with Ireland comfortably exceeding the GDP-per-head of the UK despite having had just 56% of it in 1922.
All in all, the fact that there is an ‘independence dividend’, that Wales forgoes for as long as it remains in the UK, seems undeniable.
The less obvious
But besides the feel-good factor, what are the practical, concrete things that an independent Welsh government could do to promote economic growth in Wales, that today’s Assembly government couldn’t?
Certainly Gwlad’s flagship policy, the combination of Citizen’s Income and Flat Tax, is likely to give the economy a significant boost by encouraging the long-term unemployed back into work and enabling the already well-paid to increase their income still further without fearing the bear-traps of the current over-complex tax system.
But I believe that one of the most significant levers of an independent government is the currency. Although back in the 90s I was as enthusiastic an advocate of the UK joining the Euro as you could ever hope to meet, I’ve since come to understand that a correctly-valued currency is indispensable to a country’s economic success. The UK economy powered ahead from 1992 onwards when the Pound left the ERM, since until then it had suffered severely from its overvaluation (that had been brought about as a result of North Sea Oil revenues in the 1980s and then locked in). Even so, the valuation which is appropriate for the import-oriented economy of the UK as a whole is likely still to be far too high for Wales’s export-oriented economy, and I’m convinced that having a Welsh currency would give Welsh agriculture, manufacturing and tourism a mighty boost that would go a long way to closing our current fiscal deficit.
And all of that is before you start to consider less tangible factors such as the higher profile Wales would have in the world at large, the higher reputation of Welsh agricultural produce and manufactured goods, the increased attractiveness of Wales as an investment location, and so on.
At what cost?
But even if Welsh independence were to produce an economic miracle, where would that leave those who are comfortable in their skins being British as well as Welsh? Who don’t want their horizons confined to Wales’s borders and still feel a proprietorial right over the Avons and Derwents, Wycombes and of course Dover.
Well, there’s nothing confining about Gwlad’s approach to Welsh independence. Our constitution sets it out clearly: “We assert our respect and esteem for our English, Scottish, and Irish neighbours, and believe that good relations are best fostered and maintained between free and equal nation states.” Our manifesto sets out a border policy allowing complete freedom of movement in both directions and no impediments to cross-border trade. All in all, our vision of a post-independence Britain has a great deal more in common with Scandinavia than the Balkans.
And it seems to have worked out for them rather well.