(Title Image: via People First Wales)
1. “We can’t afford it!”
This is the single biggest problem. Any independence supporter who says “it doesn’t matter” clearly isn’t taking this seriously, while anyone who says it’s never brought up when discussing independence with the “#IndyCurious” or a sceptic is lying.
Everyone in our position knows it and, to date, nobody has come up with an adequate response (though Bella Gwalia recently published a pretty good piece of work relating to this).
It’s one of what I would describe as “The Big Noes” of the independence debate (more on this in January). It’s not something we can pussyfoot around because it’s vital to both winning the argument and ensuring Wales functions after independence.
The best estimate to date – from the Wales Governance Centre’s “GERW” report (pdf) – puts the “Welsh national deficit” at £14.7billion a year (more on how Wales is funded here). As of 2019 it’s been revised downwards to £13.7billion.
That alone is enough to put people off the idea, but on paper, its impact is limited because the deficit is based on current public spending. That includes a Welsh share of all the money spent by the UK Government on UK-wide things – many of which we wouldn’t necessarily miss if they disappeared (i.e. Crossrail 1 & 2, HS2, aircraft carriers, Trident) – as well as the impact of other factors such as a higher proportion of elderly English people living in rural Wales.
The problem the IndyWales movement has is the question is always framed from that direction – an assumption that public spending has to stay the same. The question people should be asking is “What can Wales afford?” – and we have an estimated £23.3billion in revenue to finance that, not including a reasonable amount of public borrowing to top that up.
You also have to ask, “Can the UK afford independence?” The reality is countries rarely run a balanced budget. The UK certainly doesn’t. In 2016, the UK borrowed £57.1billion to help close its budget deficit (Welsh share: ~£2.8billion). If Wales ran a similar proportional deficit we would have a £26.1billion budget in total (based on the estimates in GERW).
That’s not to say it should be brushed under the carpet. We have a serious problem. We’re stuck in a loop of economic underperformance and over-subsidy, one solution to which is breaking that cycle through independence….which is made difficult because of economic underperformance and being over-subsidised.
I’ll come back to this at some point but it’ll take some time. Be patient.
2. Politicising the IndyWales Movement
Different people are going to have different visions for what an independent Wales should look like. They’re all worthy of discussion and shaping our country in our own image is one of the most important (and exciting) reasons for independence in the first place – but many things are best left decided after independence instead of being set in stone beforehand.
Independence should be presented as a series of options, ideas and recommendations – a means to an end – not certainties. If people want certainties, they can vote for what political parties offer them in an election, with a good chance politics could look and sound a lot different post-independence.
For example, Wales could join NATO, not must join NATO. Wales could retain the monarchy, or become a republic – not will become a republic. Wales could do XYZ if we were independent and Y is the best option on paper – but we would be able to change our minds.
If independence becomes a sole preserve of a “virtue-signalling” radical left, Welsh-speakers, Remainers and gets to a point where Socialist Worker placards (the surest sign you’re going to be on the losing side of an argument) make a regular appearance at Yes Cymru rallies – it dies now.
Likewise, if the minority (but underestimated numbers of) conservative nationalists, populists or pro-Indy Leavers throw a wobbler, take their ball home and end up toxifying the whole idea of independence by association – it dies now.
A quest for ideological purity will do more self-inflicted damage to the independence movement than anything else I can think of because it starts arguments within the group. So ring the alarm bell when you notice things like an excessive focus on one particular area of policy or ideology, campaigns aligning with those of specific political parties and detracting from the independence goal, or meetings stuffed with unfamiliar, but very vocal, people who want to drag discussion in one particular direction and nothing else.
Yes Cymru have rightly set their stall out from the start to not be tied to any one party or ideology, but there’s always a risk the movement will get dragged one way (such as suggestions Yes Cymru could become a Plaid sister party) when it has to stay above everyday politics to prevent getting boxed into a corner. The movement as a whole is going to have to become the “broad church” that Plaid Cymru isn’t, but needs to be aware of entryism.
3. Not having answers to basic questions
There are plenty of people out there who vocally support independence, but don’t have any idea of what they want to do with it. Then there are people like myself who have a good idea of what to do with independence, but aren’t into flag-waving, cultural issues or getting wound up over the slightest perceived “insult to Wales”.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned since I started doing this it’s that many of the simple questions are not-so-simple to answer or, more accurately, hard to answer in a short, snappy way.
Independence in Your Pocket, as published, is a very different beast to the earlier drafts and is the better for it, most of all because it….quite literally fits in your pocket. The earlier versions were citation/ fact heavy and after the fat’s been trimmed the final version is far more readable.
The burden of proof will always lie more heavily on those seeking a change. So while for the time being it’s better for the movement to pique curiosity, one day it will need “hard answers” and offer some measure of clarity on the options facing us (pointing back to #1 & #2) on the “Big Noes”, which would include defence, pensions, tax/budgets, economic systems, welfare and currency.
4. Creating an Echo Chamber
While social media is a tool of ever growing importance in modern politics, it does have its downside.
One of the major pitfalls of the Scottish independence campaign was the self-congratulatory, self-reinforcing bubble that built up around Yes supporters that was playing well online, but in the real world wasn’t anywhere near as strong as they might’ve liked.
This “bubble” can be an important mobilising force, but it can also lead to over-confidence, a misreading of the situation on the ground and even a certain level of smug arrogance (“Everyone else who doesn’t share my opinion is wrong”).
It’s great to get support for your views, but every successful campaign needs to step back and look at things from a detached perspective from time to time. That’s becoming harder and harder as, despite social media giving individuals a voice, when it comes to organised politics you’re still expected to toe a line online and offline.
Despite the better than expected IndyWales poll earlier this year, the movement still needs to win hearts and minds, not just likes and retweets. That means being open to reasonable criticism and uncomfortable debates on subjects like immigration, the Welsh language and the EU post-Brexit (I don’t include trolling from the usual suspects in that), which again points back to what I’ve said about basic questions and “Big Noes”.
Frank discussions which include well-reasoned arguments from the opposing side (or even Devil’s Advocates from within) would be a good thing to prepare ourselves for some of the stuff that will be thrown at us if/when there’s a referendum in the future.
5. Conquering the Colonial Mentality
Between the mid 13th century and the 1960s, Wales was a colony on pretty much all measures. Since the establishment of the Wales Office and devolution things haven’t really improved much on political, cultural, demographic or social levels.
The important thing to say is that we’re not alone in this. Yes, it hurts to be a conquered people and while it’s not mentioned openly, the scars only fade but never, ever heal. We were brought into the Union by force and just being Welsh has a mark of everlasting glorious failure about it.
One way of dealing with it is accepting defeat and trying to make the most of it, as the Welsh establishment have over the centuries. They find patronage with monarchs, public institutions and at Westminster with the aim of becoming the most British of the British, and Welsh when it suits them (usually when they want to appear down to earth or want to put context to a jolly at the Millennium Stadium).
The other direction is to wallow in a romanticised self-pity. Many cultures have a “prince who was promised” myth and Wales is no exception. It’s incredibly damaging, as placing your faith in “someone else doing it” gives you no motivation to do it yourselves. Even if being a nation-state is the norm around the world, Wales is always the exception, even to many Welsh, even to some nationalists!
The Flint Castle “Iron Ring” row back in July demonstrated both mentalities and why they’re both equally toxic.
Firstly, a forelock-tugging, culturally-deaf establishment decides to commemorate, in Wales, two English kings (unlikely to be known to anyone unless they studied history beyond GCSE); the monument itself being a visual pun not unlike putting a sculpture of a potato in Limerick, or a watchtower from Auschwitz in Tel Aviv. This was followed by a thinly-veiled, well-rehearsed PR campaign to browbeat and shame people into supporting it (which for perhaps the first time ever didn’t work).
Secondly, the over-reacting, chippy natives. If people would get as agitated about stuff that actually matters, instead of a giant iron anus that winds people up on Facebook, we’d be independent by now. It’s hardly Treweryn, is it? What it does demonstrate is a people who feel powerless over their own destiny and national inheritance focusing on easy, winnable battles that don’t mean very much (including sport), instead of the nastier, drawn out mud-slogs (“the Big Noes“).
How to overcome this complex is perhaps the hardest task of all.
One way is to focus on seeing the world through Welsh eyes and stop looking at things in an Anglo-British way.
If you want more recent examples, we shouldn’t give two shits what The Guardian or Newsnight thinks about the Welsh language or Welsh-medium education. What we think about Wales is the only thing that matters. It’s one of the first pillars of sovereignty. That means being our own champions and our own critics at the same time and not letting anyone else do it for us. People might say introspection is a bad thing, but considering the force-fed diet of horseshit that comes down the M4 on a semi-regular basis it would do us the world of good.