It’s sometimes a good exercise to play ‘devil’s advocate’ and try to find compelling arguments against the position that you hold. From time to time over the last few months, I’ve been trying to think of what the best arguments are for Wales remaining part of the UK.
Some of the ‘old chestnuts’ have been written about in these pages already. Anyone who’s been here before will know that I’m not convinced by:
- The argument that Wales is too poor. There is ample evidence that Wales has been able to cover its costs financially over the years, and has often been a net cash contributor to the rest of the UK. While it’s probably the case that there is a net fiscal deficit today, that’s a direct result of current UK (and Welsh) government policy – not an inescapable consequence of Wales being what it is.
- The argument that the Welsh economy is too tightly integrated with that of the rest of the UK. The examples of Ireland and the UK or Belgium and the Netherlands before the advent of the EU, or of the US and Canada today, show that large, complex modern economies can function successfully across international frontiers without the necessity for close political alignment. The amount of cross-border trade, and the number of daily commuters, across the US-Canada border dwarfs that between Wales and England.
- The argument that Wales is too small or has too few resources. It is a simple fact that small countries all over the world have an excellent record of economic performance; in fact a cursory look at the list of the world’s richest countries in terms of average income per person (according to 2017 IMF figures) shows that out of the top 15 the US is the only ‘large’ country, and most of the rest are smaller than Wales and/or have fewer natural resources than Wales.
- The argument that the cultural and family links between the Welsh and the English are too strong too dissolve. If anyone should buy this, then I should: I’m married to an English woman and live over the border in Shropshire. Yet once again the example of Ireland, going back well before the EU existed, shows that close cultural and family ties can and do continue beyond independence. Gwlad’s vision of a post-independence Britain recognises this explicitly, with a clause in our Constitution which says “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.“
So is there a compelling argument for staying in? Well here’s the best one I could come up with…
Born to Rule
The Welsh are the native inhabitants and rightful heirs, not only of the area that we nowadays call Wales, but of the whole of the island of Britain, certainly south of the Clyde-Forth valleys and possibly further north as well. Our cultural heritage and earliest artefacts come not from where we live now, but from there, in lands where the names of rivers and towns (the various Avons and Derwents, Wycombes and of course Dover) still bear our stamp.
There have been times in history when this all-Britain dimension in Welsh history has come to the fore; most notably perhaps in the the Tudor period, when a descendant of Ednyfed Fychan and Tudur ap Goronwy, uncle of Owain Glyndŵr, seized the English throne. We nowadays see the action of his son, Henry VIII, in binding Wales and England together in the 1535 Acts of Union, as a terrible act of betrayal. However, many at the time and since have seen it as the proper resumption of Welsh rule over all of Britain. It is certainly the case that under that Welsh dynasty, England went from being a decidedly second-rate European power to a first-rate World power.
In more recent history, many take pride in the premiership of David Lloyd George, a man from a humble Eifionydd background who became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at a time when it was at the height of its imperial power. Alas, I’m not aware of any Welsh-speaking politician who has reached such a position of prominence since then apart from Enoch Powell.
Those in the Labour movement, on the other hand, are well aware that without Welsh votes (and even more so, Scottish ones), there would have been very few Labour governments in Westminster – probably only in 1945 and 1997, possibly in 1966. England consistently votes Conservative by a wide margin, and it sometimes seems like the Welsh Left see it as their duty to keep Wales in the UK so that their Welsh Labour votes can help deliver their English comrades from permanent Conservative rule. They appear to see the fact that their Welsh comrades experience near-permanent Conservative rule as a result of this strategy to be a price worth paying.
If Wales becomes independent, then this illusion will be shattered. Wales can no longer claim rightful hegemony over the whole island of Britain; ambitious Welsh politicians will not so easily aspire to the kudos of being Prime Minister (or for the really ambitious ones, King) of the whole of the United Kingdom.
But that’s a terrible argument…
Hopefully even the most humourless clod can make out that my tongue was firmly in my cheek as I wrote the above. It’s quite obviously an imperialist argument: essentially, that Wales should stay in the UK not because we derive any benefit from it but because of the power that it gives us, real or imagined, over it. Because by becoming independent we would abandon our historic territorial claim over the lands that were once ours.
It has nothing to say to those among us who aren’t descended from pre-Saxon Brythonic stock. It offers us nothing economically. It wouldn’t have saved the Welsh coal industry from either Harold Wilson or Margaret Thatcher (the former of whom closed far more mines than the latter). It’s a “blood and soil” argument of precisely the kind that the pro-independence movement is often accused of making.
But it’s still the best argument I can think of.
Do we really want to stay in a Union that impoverishes us, narrows our horizons, devalues our culture, undermines our history, diminishes us on the world stage, crushes our spirit and is so much less than the sum of its parts, just so that we can cling on to some imperialist dream of wielding power over it? Or do we want to stand on our own feet, build a better future for our country and our descendants, take responsibility for our economy and become, if not a World Power, at the very least a free and outward-looking small country that can hold its head high in the world at large. For me that’s a not a difficult choice to make.