Wexit? Wales could opt for independence if Westminster does not redeem itself
The long-sleeping Welsh dragon is becoming more restive, with a series of polls indicating a growing interest in separation.
Monday 16 September 2019 09:59, UK
In 2013 Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party said: "Could Wales flourish as an independent nation? We think that Wales can. We have recently celebrated the first 10 years of devolution - but we believe that the next 10 years will be the real decade of change. Wales and her people are ready and willing to ask the difficult questions - and also to come up with the solutions."
At the time, few paid any attention. In 2013 even Scottish independence seemed a relatively far-fetched idea; the drama of the referendum campaign was still to come. The idea of 'Wexit' seemed even more preposterous. Wales has not been anything close to an independent state since 1282.
Its nationalism, insofar as it had existed and been successful, had largely contained itself to questions of culture rather than politics, with a focus on protecting the Welsh language and cultural life more broadly.
EU membership has thus become a segment, if not the primary driver of the culture war
Yet of late, the long-sleeping Welsh dragon is becoming more restive. A series of polls have indicated a growing interest in the idea of separation. A poll published yesterday indicated that if Wales' status within the EU could be assured, 40% of those who expressed a view (around 30% if you include those without) would opt for independence.
Less than a decade ago, some polls put support for such an idea in the single digits. The idea has been gaining more traction since but the acceleration is interesting. It has been accompanied by a series of marches and demonstrations in favour of separation. It has been a slow boiling but potentially major development in British politics.
Think of Wales' part in the union as the ultimate stress test. Scotland may have been semi-detached for some time; since 1922 Northern Ireland has had a unique status and history of contestation but Wales has been politically stitched to England for nigh on a millennium.
So if Wales is wavering, it gives some impression of the considerable burden the union is bearing right now. The loosening of our national bonds has much to do with Brexit: its effect has been threefold, each to the detriment of the union.
Firstly, it has exposed Westminster's deepest fragility; its incapacity to deal with the Brexit crisis has had a profound impact on the prestige of the Westminster model and our own institutions in the minds of virtually all voters, with those in the nations no exception.
The actions of government ministers and MPs, in whatever form, have contributed to its discredit as a governing model.
Many English people might sympathise with Scots, Welsh and Irish who look at Westminster and think, I would love to escape it. They, unlike the English, have a potential lever to pull.
Secondly, it has highlighted an old sore: the nations' relative political unimportance in the House of Commons. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland together, barely equate to a fifth of England's MPs.
Frankly, their views can be overridden easily, there just isn't the clout. Time and again, the government in particular has seemed utterly indifferent to the starkly different politics of the nations, especially apropos the European question. That's despite the fact that in the Conservatives' case, had they not won 12 new seats north of the border in 2017, they would not be in government now.
The lack of senior Scottish or Welsh voices around the cabinet table (compare this to almost any period in the last century) emphasise this too. Simply put, as with the referendum itself, demographic power means England will always be king.
And third, curiously, the Brexit process has somewhat rehabilitated the EU's reputation with regards to its treatment of smaller states. Nationalists across Europe, far from seeing Brussels as yet another imperial power seeking to erode their national identities, have come in recent decades to see it as a guarantor of nationhood and the rights of small states.
This reputation appeared lost after the Greek crisis (remember the now quaint-sounding 'Grexit'?); but the perception has taken root that Ireland's voice and power has been massively enhanced during the Brexit standoff and that the EU's wholehearted support has helped see off its larger, more powerful neighbour. The EU is seen as a means of equalising power between larger and smaller states and is thus attractive to nationalist movements in Britain.
And this is why the union may prove so unstable in the long term. Brexit has introduced a new and potentially long-lasting cleavage into British politics.
Whereas before concern about the EU was a minority if not eccentric pursuit, it has become nearly ubiquitous. Indeed a whole new type of voter has been created; those who see our membership of the EU as a fundamental political fixture, a part of their identities.
EU membership has thus become a segment, if not the primary driver of the culture war. Even if we leave, if nationalism comes to be seen as a means of winning that culture war, of regaining what was lost, the British state, as an obstacle in its way, could easily fall.
For Brexit has taken away the two fundamental assets of unionism: in the Scottish referendum, the basic virtue of those arguing for the UK was that the British state offered political stability and reliability.
Today, it is Westminster not Holyrood or Cardiff Bay which looks like the bigger risk.
Secondly, in years gone by nationalism was seen as the insular force, a nativist one even.
But Brexit has recast nationalism and nationalists as those who wish to be part of the greater continental whole, not an island with its inward-looking nation state. No talk of 'global Britain' can compensate for that.
To many liberal-minded and left wing voters, nationalism now appears more cosmopolitan and offers a potential escape route from a Westminster which seems destined to be painted an ever deeper shade of Tory (and at that a right-wing Tory) blue. We have arrived at the odd place where being a Scottish or Welsh nationalist is synonymous with being a globalist, for eschewing nationalism.
And so perhaps, the most interesting finding of the recent Welsh polling is that over 40% of Labour voters from 2017 would back independence with EU membership attached. This should send alarm bells ringing in Labour's offices in Cardiff and London.
It seems eerily reminiscent of what happened to the party in Scotland. If voters on the liberal left come to believe that there is no longer salvation for their brand of politics to be had in Westminster and the parties charged with preserving it, they might look elsewhere.
Labour is still reeling from its losses in Scotland; it will be dealt a near terminal blow if Wales goes the same way. A source from Plaid Cymru told me that they're seeing Labour voters more and more receptive to their separatist message: "We used to shy away from it…but now they are not shutting you down when you raise it, they are much more open to the idea than they have ever been before. It has gone from anti-politics to anti-Westminster."
The theme of the mid to late 2010s has been Britain's unravelling within the European club, our berth for nearly half a century. If Westminster does not redeem itself, if it does not think big about the union - and fast - the theme of the 2020s, will be the unravelling of Britain as a multi-nation state itself, our berth for two and a half centuries more.https://news.sky.com/story/wexit-wales-could-opt-for-independence-if-westminster-does-not-redeem-itself-11809164