30 September 2020

Plaid’s roadmap to independence leads nowhere

By Ioan Phillips

Last week, Plaid Cymru’s independence commission published its report outlining a “roadmap to independence” for Wales.

The report gives a sober account of why independence is both viable and desirable, aping the technocratic tone taken by the SNP’s Growth Commission.

The problem with the report is not that it advocates independence. Self-determination is a natural impulse. Indeed, a quarter of the EU’s members are countries that did not formally exist in 1990 – and there is no compelling abstract case against Wales joining their ranks. The problem here is the commission’s refusal to countenance the hard policy choices that independence poses.

For many nations, independence – and its aftermath – was not easy. The independence commission minimises this, characterising the economic hit of going it alone as a quick bout of “cold turkey”. The reality would be far more drawn-out, thanks in no small part to a ~25% loss of Wales’ public spending power. The independence commission skirts deftly around the trade-off over how best to offset this revenue loss. It acknowledges “wide-ranging changes to both taxation and spending would be required” without actually specifying that these changes entail either drastic tax hikes or swingeing spending cuts.

In addition to this is the irony of the independence commission citing Ireland, Denmark, and New Zealand as proof that independence will automatically engender economic dynamism. All the countries it mentions are agile and innovative market economies. Most supporters of Welsh independence would baulk at such economic liberalism being enacted in Cambrian form. There are repeated calls for a “radical” retooling of Wales’ economic model post-independence, but as a blueprint it is fairly nebulous – one suspects to secure the quiescence of more left-wing nationalists.

Before all that, Wales would have to negotiate its exit from the UK (or what remains of it). On the one hand, the independence commission is right when it says Wales is neither too poor nor too small to be independent. On the other, it omits to mention that in pure realpolitik terms, Wales would be smaller and poorer than the rump UK state with which it was trying to negotiate a divorce settlement. Brexit underscores that hard power counts. In this context, the incentives for a rump UK to offer favourable terms to Wales are difficult to discern.

The other major lesson from Brexit the independence commission overlooks is that leaving an established union will invariably be divisive. At a stroke, Welsh independence creates a new state that would have no legitimacy with a sizeable plurality of its citizens. Although 32% of all Welsh voters expressed support for independence in a recent YouGov poll, that support drops to just 9% amongst centre-right voters. The commission has little to say on embedding democratic consent amongst this demographic beyond vague proposals for citizens’ assemblies.

Far from putting Wales on a clear road to independence, the commission’s well-intentioned report is more of a path to nowhere. An independent Wales is not necessarily bad. The policy-based arguments currently being made in favour of that outcome are, though. Amser i ddod un realistaidd.*

*Time to get real.

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Ioan Phillips is a consultant with GK Strategy. He writes in a personal capacity.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.