There’s no denying it, I get misty eyed whenever I drive through sublime rural Shropshire and Herefordshire especially on crisp winter mornings. Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ still has the ability to move me. There is, frankly, much that I love about England, the English and their own complex and diverse culture. Historic cities, exquisite countryside, music, entertainment, their contribution to medicine, the trade union and suffragette movements...
Like so many of the sons and daughters of Wales I even have some English ancestry. I’m labouring the point somewhat but what I’m about to write is not an attack on the English or England. I do though think that in this time when there is so much political turbulence both domestically and internationally, serious debate is needed over what the governance of Wales should look like in years to come.
Phew, a big ask in a thousand or so words, I hear you say, and you’d be bloody right but there are undoubtedly huge post Brexit changes coming to these islands. Wales and its people need to be ready to make the most of this shifting political landscape and do something we’re not usually very good at: seizing the opportunities with assertiveness and confidence.
Firstly, a little bit about me. I’m a monoglot English speaker originally from Wales’ deeply anglicised border country. I’m certainly no great ‘heart on the sleeve,’ flag waving patriot. That said, I’m a proud Welshman even if it’s most obvious manifestation is as part of the ‘Red Wall’ at Wales international football matches. As for nationalism, it’s always left me feeling uneasy in whatever form it takes. So, not a flag waver and not a nationalist but my ‘Welshness’ and my desire to see my country free itself from its historic crisis of confidence are things that define who I am.
But, why do we need to talk about shaking up the governance of Wales and... horror of horrors... eventually full independence for Wales? Aren’t we ok as we are?
Well, no, frankly, we’re not.
We could, of course, keep rolling along as we are. Struggling little Wales generally underperforming a bit more each year. The Welsh Assembly Government in its lovely, shiny, purpose built building in Cardiff Bay failing to live up to voter expectations as its members, usually with the very best of intentions, attempt to make a toothless tiger roar. At times, and it pains me to write this, it appears to be little more than a glorified county council.
Equally, there can be absolutely no going back to direct rule from Westminster. The notion that being governed directly by Old Etonians and MPs from the leafy shires of southern England will somehow be better for the Welsh people is absurd and insulting. We’d be back to quango government and extreme free market policies through the back door. If you want Wales to go back to being run as a feeble pseudo colony of England, with another de facto Governor General like John Redwood sent down the M4 to administer us, then I politely suggest you stop reading now.
Are we ready for independence at the present time? The answer, in all honesty, would have to be no. But, if returning to direct rule from Westminster is utterly regressive and our Welsh Assembly Government is underperforming due to its lack of real powers, then ‘devo-max’ or full fiscal autonomy is unquestionably the next step that needs to be taken. A fully functioning parliament delivering for the people of Wales and not the torpid, ineffective halfway house we currently have. For Gods sake, we must be one of the few peoples on earth who lack sufficient self belief to run their own affairs. Let’s get moving with this and quickly.
Why the rush?
There are lots of reasons why there needs to be rapid movement on this and they seem to grow by the day. For starters, there’s an ugly, pernicious English nationalism on the rise. It found its voice before the Brexit vote but since the decision to leave the EU its most vociferous and aggressive proponents feel emboldened. Sure, Wales voted Leave too and there were valid reasons for that but if you ask voters in a country where large swathes of the population are doing rather worse than ‘just about managing’ whether they’re happy with the status quo or whether they want change - whatever that change may be - they’ll invariably opt for change. Rocket science it ain’t. It’s what I believe happened in many parts of Wales, particularly in post industrial areas.
The kind of jingoistic, chest beating English nationalism we’re currently seeing across England will eventually drive a wedge between our two countries. Will it prove to be the catalyst for an English Parliament in the near future? It wouldn’t surprise me at all. Similarly, the Brexit fall-out appears to possess all of the dynamics necessary for a rapid disintegration of the union. Or maybe we’ll find ourselves being run as a post Brexit toothless, decaying (even more so than now) province of England governed by a hard line, reactionary English nationalist government keen to ditch Wales altogether.
Sound far fetched? Who would seriously have predicted a Trump presidency and Brexit just two years ago?
It may very well be that we don’t depart the UK of our own volition. Instead, unstoppable forces turbo charged by Brexit will simply lead to its swift disintegration. The signs are certainly there. Wales and its people need to be ready.
And think of the positives? We’d finally be shot of the monarchy and House of Lords! No more expensive tax payer funded palace refurbishments. The staggering three billion pounds needed for the Houses of Parliament make-over could be found down the back of someone else’s sofa. The fifty billion pounds earmarked for HS2 can perhaps be funded by those who’ll benefit from it. Likewise, the extraordinary two hundred billion pounds ‘needed’ for Trident.
As an independent nation we surely wouldn’t feel the need to prove our post imperial potency by involving ourselves in illegal wars in deeply unstable parts of the world. Nor would we have to sacrifice our dignity by selling billions of pounds worth of arms to some of the planets worst human rights abusers.
On a more frivolous note, we could lose the bloody awful toadying names of so many hospitals up and down Wales. The Royal Gwent, Prince Philip Hospital, Prince Charles Hospital and more. Great hospitals, wonderful staff and surely worthy of far better monikers than they currently possess!
Finally, it’s worth remembering that there are more than one hundred smaller independent nations than Wales around the globe. So successful has the conditioning been from both our bigger and much more powerful neighbour and I’m afraid to say ourselves that we’ve grown accustomed to ridiculing the very notion of independence. Well, times are changing and quickly. It really is time for some independent thinking in Wales.