What if the industrial revolution had not happened? What would have become of Wales? The economist Brinley Thomas tackled that very question in the 1950s. Rather than the rural utopia some had suggested, it was likely that Wales would have shrivelled up. The young population would either have moved east to London, or sailed in their tens of thousands for the United States, like the Irish. Rather than being the curse of Wales, he argued, the industrial revolution saved it and its culture. Otherwise it would have turned into an old country, a costa geriatrica fit only for retirees, with no real economy to speak of.
The industrial revolution started to run out of steam a hundred years ago, and there is now every danger that Wales could become the country that Brinley Thomas envisaged. A vibrant capital hides the fact that we are becoming an increasingly old, poor country. And who can blame the young for leaving when there are so many communities where there are no opportunities to be had?
On Thursday Wales received another body blow which could make this decline irreversible. It voted to leave the EU, a decision described by one leading academic as ‘Turkeys voting for Christmas’. Wales had received over £4 billion from the EU since the year 2000 in order to improve its creaking infrastructure. What was left of our export economy, already in the doldrums – see Port Talbot - depended on Wales being a base from which companies could reach the rest of Europe through the single market. The economic rationale for leaving was very poor.
I was a strong Remain supporter, and was gutted by the result. Even Wales’ passage to the Euro 2016 quarter finals couldn’t lift me from my slough of despond. The country suddenly felt alien to me – who are these fellow countrymen I share a nation with? Do I even like them any more?
But I’ve had a few days to think this through and eliminate all the ill-feeling and emotion from my system. The path forward now seems clear to me.
Following the EU Referendum result, Wales has two real choices. The first option is to follow the path interrupted by the industrial revolution, and become that aged economic backwater that Brinley Thomas envisaged. A shrivelled husk of a nation, which will be swallowed up without protest into EnglandandWales.
The second is to follow Scotland’s lead, and push for independence.
Putting the UK 'through the mincer'
Now, whatever you may say about the SNP, and whatever your feelings about Scottish Independence, it’s very difficult to argue that the movement has been bad for Scotland. They used to be much like Wales – their vote taken for granted, and mostly ignored. Outvoted in the Commons. Now little happens at all in Westminster without a thought for Scotland. The threat of independence in and of itself does wonders for a country, even if the goal is never reached. Scotland is buzzing with possibilities, and from this smouldering political cauldron have arisen some of the finest politicians in the UK.
Wales on the other hand has, since the 19th century, cherished its role as the loyalest nation in the British Isles. We promoted the idea of Britishness as a way to argue our way into a British Empire (the teutonic Anglo-Saxons though the Celts to feminine and airy-fairy for warrior’s work). Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise – the Welsh were full and happy partners in that project. Britishness worked for us, then.
This mind-set continues today. Even in the wake of the Independence Referendum in Scotland, Ex-First Minister of Wales Rhodri Morgan called on Westminster to reward Wales for its loyalty and not putting them “through the mincer”. Was Wales rewarded? No. It was ignored, while Scotland was showered with vows and promises. We no longer need to prove ourselves in order to get ‘in’ to Britain. Britain needs us to stay in so that it can maintain its self-esteem.
A little bit of rebellion would reap its own rewards. But the goal of independence in Europe is one worth pursuing in and of itself. Over the next decade or so Wales faces the prospect of a dire economic slowdown within the UK – and the economy was in a pretty poor state to begin with. Wales has been comprehensively neglected by Westminster. Labour haven’t been able to offer anything other than a battered shield to protect Wales against the worst of the Tories’ austerity cuts. And with the party in a state of civil war over Corbyn’s leadership, it’s going to be a very long time until it is in power at Westminster again.
And even if Labour did win power in another decade, there’s nothing to suggest they could cure Wales’ economic woes. Labour was in total control between 1997 and 2010 and the decline, while managed, continued apace. The party has been in power at the Welsh Assembly for 17 years and hasn’t managed to bridge the gap in standards with the rest of the UK.
Independence for Wales would fee us from this economic Catch-22. It would be tough at first – Wales raises some £17bn in taxes a year, and spends £15bn just on those issues that are currently devolved. We would have to suffer some turbulence. There’s no point denying that, like the Brexiters did. But getting our hands on the economic levers would allow us to build a competitive economy, rather than beg for scraps off London’s table.
The Brexit Vote
Before we begin courting these disaffected Brexit voters, we need to understand what motivated them. Some have suggested that it was British nationalism, and one in the eye for Welshness. This does not stand up to any scrutiny. Large swathes of rural Meirionnydd, and Anglesey, Welsh-speaking heartlands, voted out. Carmarthenshire voted out. I know many patriotic Welsh-speaking members of Plaid Cymru who voted ‘out’.
I have spoken to a few people since the referendum who have tried to pin the loss on English incomers, but this is passing the buck. Areas such as the Valleys in the south-east where upwards of 90% were born in Wales voted ‘out’ as well. Ceredigion, where only 59% were born in Wales, voted ‘in’.
The irregular pattern of voting across Wales had more to do with age and socio-economic status than nationalism. Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Cardiff voted in. They have universities with large young, multicultural student populations. The Vale of Glamorgan, Cardiff and Monmouthshire also voted in. They have a larger middle-class population who would fear the economic consequences of Brexit. The population of the rest of Wales skews towards the old and the working class. Call them Welsh, British, or both, this is where Vote Leave’s message hit home.
You could argue that laying the argument for Welsh independence before these people would be madness – they just voted to leave the European Union! But in reality these are the exact people most likely to vote for it. These are the people who have been most neglected by the establishment, and who are happy to take the financial risk of voting for change because they don’t feel things could get any worse. If you look at the areas that voted ‘Yes’ in the Scottish Independence Referendum, they won the most deprived areas in Glasgow and lost middle-class Edinburgh. Areas such as the Valleys in south-east Wales are crying out for a change in their circumstances, for a little TLC. Only Welsh independence could deliver the specific economic remedies their problems require.
The financial argument for Wales in Europe is an easy one to make. What did Wales vote ‘out’ for, anyway? Vote Leave have now rowed back on all three of their main campaign promises. And even if they could deliver them, it would not make a difference in Wales. Did we vote for fewer immigrants from the EU? Very few come to Wales, because there are few jobs to attract them. If Wales had seen the levels of immigration experienced in some urban areas of London, I would understand the concern. But with all due respect, if you move to the UK you’re not going to head for Cwm Sgwt. Did we vote for an extra £350m to spend on the NHS? The health service is devolved and the budget set by the Welsh Assembly. For democracy? Yes, the EU does need reform – but we have plenty of unelected bureaucrats in Whitehall, let alone the House of Lords. If you really want to take back control, rather than transfer power from one Bullingdon club member to another, vote for an independent Wales.
People voted Brexit in the British interest because the arguments were not presented to them in a Welsh context. We can point to a few reasons for this. The first was the disastrous decision to hold the referendum a little over a month after the Welsh General Election – the political parties and political journalists were spent, financially and in terms of energy. Secondly, the two largest political parties in Wales, Plaid Cymru and Labour, were expected to take their orders from the wider Stronger In campaign. Unfortunately, this campaign had thought it could win the referendum by rolling out a number of big guns, from the President of the United States to leading economists, and that their predictions of doom and gloom would do the trick. It was almost all ‘air war’ conducted through the TV, radio and internet, and Wales barely got a mention. What little investment there was on the ground found its way to those areas thought most likely to vote ‘Remain’ - Scotland and large urban areas, of which there are very few in Wales.
The most pressing objective if we are to win this argument is to strengthen the Welsh media. Independence is a pipe-dream while the majority of Welsh people continue to consume the Sun and Daily Mail.
Rekindling the spirit
Pessimists will suggest that the Welsh lack the backbone to go it alone. This claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. After all, the Welsh were happy to throw themselves on the mercy of Brexit, despite a barrage of advice otherwise, just last week. The lack of success for the Welsh independence movement comes down to two factors. 1.) No one has argued for it (even Plaid Cymru), and 2.) there was no real reasonable incentive for it before. That has now changed. If a slippery fish like Farage can drag us out of the EU, how can we fail to kindle a progressive national spirit among the Welsh if we put our backs into it?
While watching the BBC News earlier I saw the newsreader Huw Edwards announce that Plaid Cymru’s policy had changed to Independence in Europe. It just so happens that a few day earlier I had been reading a book by his historian father, Hywel Teifi Edwards. After discussing the Welsh nationalism on the early 20th century which saw the creation of institutions such as the University of Wales, National Library of Wales and National Museum of Wales, he finishes the book with these words: “If only the same spirit could be rekindled... The battlefield, as it has been over the centuries, is the Welsh mind. We are long overdue a decisive victory."
We know the Welsh mind, and we can win this battle.