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Independence and the Union

Some comments on Gordon Gibson’s article in Celyn (view here) and his talk to Swansea Labour Left

By Peter Rowlands

I found Gordon’s talk/article difficult, although he makes many good points. He attempts, rightly, to link the struggle for autonomy to that against austerity, but I believe exaggerates the extent to which that can be meaningfully done in Wales, for reasons I will elaborate on below.

It is perhaps worth restating the generally accepted left view of nationalism, which normally distinguishes between nation states that are independent or control areas that are potential nations, and the latter. The former is opposed, with nationalism promoting imperialism, imposing an artificial unity and hiding class barriers, but the latter is supported, partly because it thereby weakens the oppressor nations, but mainly because the realisation of national independence is seen as a stage that has to be resolved before the struggle for socialism can begin.

Although in Ireland the national struggle continued throughout the 19th century, and has still not been fully resolved,in Wales and Scotland it remained limited until its revival in the mid 1960s  since when it has been a significant force in both countries.

However, while in terms of history, culture and ethnicity there are all sorts of connections and parallels between Wales and Scotland, it is wrong in my view to accept that both countries can be defined as fully fledged  nations. The definition of a nation must surely be that an overwhelming majority consider themselves part of the nation and aspire to independence or some form of self government. According to these criteria Scotland is clearly a nation, but Wales barely so.

The 1997 referenda on devolution in Wales and Scotland clearly pinpointed the differences. There was a majority for devolution almost everywhere in Scotland, with 74% of the total vote, on a 62% turnout, whereas in Wales there was a wafer thin majority of 50.3%, on a 50% turnout, with the industrial north east, the northern resorts, the rural east and south east, Newport and the Vale of Glamorgan all voting decisively against.  At every election since 1970 the SNP have done significantly better than Plaid, except for the Parliament/Assembly elections of 1999 and 2003.

All of this indicates that a national consciousness is far more developed and widespread in Scotland than in Wales, to the extent that the question of independence can credibly be raised, although ‘devo – max’ is a more likely outcome. In Wales, although Plaid have returned to a clear independence perspective there is little support for this, with many Plaid supporters being more concerned with safeguarding the Welsh language, not an issue in Scotland.

Plaid might be in a better position in Wales had not Welsh Labour, under Rhodri Morgan, developed a position which was both to the left of New Labour and more pro devolution than had traditionally been Labour’s stance. This did much to satisfy those with a left and nationalist outlook who might otherwise have gone over to Plaid. By contrast Labour in Scotland have appeared much more New Labour and pro union, thus enhancing the SNP’s appeal, particularly when its leaders are contrasted to Alex Salmond.

It is often said that Wales can be divided into three, the Welsh speaking West, the ‘English’ East, South-east and Pembrokeshire, and the coal valleys. If Wales consisted only of the West then it would be a nation, although even here it can only win half the Westminster seats and does not currently have a majority on any council. Support remains limited in most of the East, including Cardiff and Newport, with significant interchange with adjacent urban areas in England ( Bristol, Shrewsbury, Chester). The proportion of Wales’s population born in Wales is much lower than it is in Scotland ( 75% to 87%), and particularly so in the East. However, Plaid have managed to build significant support in parts of the old coal valleys, particularly Rhondda Cynon Taf (RCT), Caerphilly ( both of which they have controlled) and Neath Port Talbot, although much less so in Merthyr Tydfil, Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen. However, this vote is not consistent and has varied considerably, with Labour voters in RCT and Caerphilly switching to Plaid in 99 and 08 but back to Labour in 04 and 12.

I do not know enough about the detailed politics of these areas to draw firm conclusions, but there is some evidence that economic decline and disillusionment with New Labour have made Plaid more attractive, although as I have said support is geographically patchy and inconsistent over time. Support for Plaid here is perhaps more to do with ‘Rugby patriotism’and a strong regional identification as in Yorkshire or Merseyside than with a  nationalism that seriously looks to independence.

Nor is it the case that it is possible to  realistically identify a separate Welsh bourgeoisie, although it is  in Scotland, a further reason for supporting nationalism there. Despite the SNP’s recent drift to the right over independence ( monarchy, currency, NATO) they still appear social democratic while Labour has failed to distinguish itself from New Labour in the way it has successfully managed to do in Wales, and, as Gordon points out, by supporting the’No’ campaign are likely to further alienate themselves from potential supporters.

It therefore seems to me that while there is a case for supporting nationalism in Scotland, (which many on the left did through the Scottish Socialist Party before its unfortunate implosion), there is no such case in Wales, simply because there is not, and is unlikely to be, sufficient support for it. ( Note that I am not saying that Wales is too small to be independent. There are six nations in the EU that are smaller than Wales with its three million people. Three of these have  populations of under a million.) However, there is growing support for devolution and Labour should continue to build on that and maintain a recognition of Plaid as a potential political partner, as it was for four years.

If Scotland votes for independence in 2014 this will provide a boost for Plaid, but that is unlikely in my view, although a ‘devo – max’ settlement could lead to further devolution for Wales, and perhaps a proper federal solution for the UK. The other possibility is a federal Europe within which there would be less of a problem about Wales and Scotland being  separate states, if there was sufficient support for it. Gordon calls for this, and I believe it to be the best solution, for Europe and for the different  nationalities it contains.It is effectively being called for at the moment by Germany and France, at least for the Euro area.

It might be considered to be irresponsible to be even contemplating a separate nation or nations in the light of the dreadful violence that has accompanied national struggles in Europe in recent years, both in the Balkans, Spain and in our own backyard in Northern Ireland. However, socialists cannot ignore these questions, as Gordon rightly says. I have indicated above that I think that the national question remains unresolved in both Scotland and Ireland, linked in both countries by the toxic brew of Orangeism. In Wales however, provided that due regard is paid to national and cultural devolution, there is in my view no need to see a national question as needing resolution, although the left should certainly support further autonomy for Wales either through a federal UK or a federal EU as outlined above.

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