Independence for nations such as Wales and Scotland is a divisive issue in the UK, literally and figuratively. Scotland only narrowly missed out on independence in the 2014 referendum, and support for the issue has only grown since. Likewise, Wales has seen an uptick in support for independence, so it’s worth looking at the arguments for it.
I personally support the idea of independence for each of the nations within the UK. Having grown up in Wales, around people who were fiercely proud to be Welsh, I have always had a love for where I come from and the people who live there. I had supported Welsh independence growing up, but sort of instinctually, without really thinking about it. But as I grew older, I found more and more solid reasons to back it, and began to interact with the topic on a more conscious level.
Wales isn’t taken very seriously outside of its border, or at times, even inside. I get it, we are a tiny little country and we do have a lot of sheep here and our language looks quite consonant-heavy when you know nothing about it – and we used to be part of England. It’s all very funny, I understand. But not being taken seriously starts to sting when your country is underfunded and overlooked to the point of nearly a third of its children living in poverty.
Maybe that’s quite a jump to make but it’s all part and parcel of the same issue. Harmless jokes about Wales and Westminster’s active disregard for Wales can both stem from the same belief – that Wales isn’t important, and that its people in some way don’t matter. But it is, and we do. Over 3 million people live here, a small number compared to England, but 3 million nonetheless. And those people and this land help to support England, with our work and our resources.
Historically Wales has had an important role also. The NHS was created by a Welsh man, Aneurin Bevan. Welshman Donald Davies invented packet switching, which paved the way for the invention of the internet. The industrial revolution was powered by Welsh coal and steel.
The socialist red flag was also raised for the first time in Britain, or allegedly for the first time in history, in 1831 at Hirwaun during the Merthyr Rising when a white flag was dipped in a calf’s blood, as a symbol of the protesters’ slogan ‘Bara neu Waed’ (‘Bread or Blood’). It’s a bit grim but an incredibly important part of history. And all in little old Wales!
I’m not saying that people necessarily need to stop making fun of Wales, that’s a natural part of living alongside each other, and if those sheep-shagger jokes make you deep-in-your-soul happy, then who am I to spoil your fun I guess. But this underlying belief that Wales is unimportant needs to be interrogated and dispelled, most of all on a political level.
How the union damages Wales
As the campaign for Welsh independence, YesCymru, notes, Wales is currently considered a “minor part” of the UK by Westminster, and this is reflected in the UK government’s actions. The number of Welsh MPs in parliament could decrease if proposals by the Boundary Commission are enacted, putting the current 40 Welsh MPs in parliament (only 6% of total MPs) at risk of falling to 32.
It’s also important to note that Wales is different to England, politically and culturally, and this difference should be celebrated and allowed to bloom. Wales has consistently voted Labour into power in the Senedd since devolution in 1999 but has been laden with numerous Conservative governments in Westminster during that time. A recent survey also found that 53% of Welsh voters felt that Wales has “different social attitudes to the UK”, so why is Wales under the control of a government that does not represent these attitudes?
Wales is currently the poorest nation in the UK, with the South Wales Valleys one of the poorest regions in Europe. In 2019 research found that the worst wealth inequality in Europe was between London and the South Wales Valleys.
Wales also has some of the highest poverty rates in the UK, with the highest child poverty rates, as it was revealed last year that 31% of Welsh children live in poverty. However, whereas in England poverty is allowed to continue due to government inaction – and even exacerbated by moves such as raising national insurance and cutting the Covid-19 increase to universal credit – the Welsh government wants to, and has tried to help.
One such instance of this is last year’s announcement that Wales would be trialling universal basic income to cover the basic cost of living. However, Senedd leader Mark Drakeford explained that "It'll have to be a pilot because we don't have all the powers in our own hands to do it on our own.” The want for change is there, but Wales is not given the ability to properly implement these changes. An independent Wales would also allow the people of Wales to better scrutinise politicians’ actions in such matters. YesCymru have pointed out that independence “also means that we can hold our own politicians accountable and force them to be more ambitious for our nation’s future.”
The lack of wealth in Wales could be seen as an argument against independence, rather than for. However, Wales in fact has a lot of resources that it could financially benefit from but has been denied the ability to do so. Wales exports large amounts of water to England for instance. A tweet from YesCymru alleged that “243 billion litres of water is annually exported from Wales, but our communities see no benefit. Severn Trent Water, who own many reservoirs in mid Wales, sell Welsh water and make a £1bn a year profit. None of this profit returns to Wales.”
Wales was also set to have the UK’s first ever tidal energy lagoon in Swansea Bay, but plans were scrapped, in part due to late development but that development had also been hindered by a lack of support from the UK government. While the UK government is seemingly happy to overspend in areas such as the defence budget and mismanagement of Covid-related contracts, it bears asking why a project that could have significantly benefited Wales and even the UK as a whole through sustainable energy was considered a financial risk.
This was part of growing interest in Wales and its resources as key components of the UK’s journey towards net zero. However, a report last year on renewable energy in Wales from the Welsh Affairs Committee warned that, “While this decarbonisation journey offers potentially rich rewards, it also contains significant risks for the Welsh economy. While Wales’s natural resources may lend themselves to renewable generation projects, there is no guarantee that the supply chains and workforces involved in the development of these programmes will be based in, or come from, Wales.”
Projects like the tidal lagoon are able to be scrapped at Westminster’s will because any energy generation development bigger than 350 MW in Wales must have approval from the UK government in order to go ahead. This is one of several areas in which Wales and the Welsh government do not have control over its own affairs. Devolution gave further powers to Wales in many areas but there are still significant gaps in the autonomy that Wales is allowed.
Unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales has no separate justice policy and is part of a single jurisdiction with England, which has been found to be “failing the people of Wales”. Wales’s ability to vary income taxes is also restricted.
An independent Wales is a risk economically, it’s true, but I feel that it’s a worthwhile one. Of all the nations in the UK, Wales has the highest poverty rates, with 23% of the population living in poverty as of 2020, and the UK government seems to have no interest in tackling this or giving the Welsh government the ability to tackle the issue itself. Sitting around and hoping for the UK government to solve our problems whilst it takes more and more from us is, in my opinion, not a viable option.
How an independent Wales could be better
An independent Wales would be a risk, but at least a risk that we had some ability to contribute to and control ourselves. The current system is already risk-heavy, leaving us at the mercy of an uncaring, corrupt government sliding further and further towards right-wing totalitarianism. Wales has proven, throughout our history of contribution to socialist ideals and our consistency in voting for socialist parties, that we want a left-wing society, built on care and democracy. Independence gives us a chance to build that society.
The younger generation in particular is beginning to favour the idea of Welsh independence, but the above is only my personal feelings on the matter, so, what do other young people have to say? A 2021 survey found that 48% of 16-34 year olds in Wales would vote ‘yes’ in a referendum on Welsh independence, while 34% would vote ‘no’ (16% were undecided and 2% would prefer not to say). I also spoke to some Welsh people in a similar age range about whether or not they were in favour of independence and why.
Several were undecided, with one anonymous contributor stating, “I need to know more information”. Mia, 22, was also undecided and also referenced needing more information, saying “I don’t really know a lot about it, but an Independent Wales could mean we feel more fairly represented.”
Another anonymous contributor was undecided and expressed doubt as to how Wales could really fair on its own. “From a purely selfish perspective, as a student outside of Wales, my tuition fees would double to my university's international rate. The British passport is fairly strong - I would lose that too, and we're lacking infrastructure needed to establish foreign relations,” they said.
“Economically, independence would push us straight into the deep end with little to keep us afloat. At the very least we should push for a stronger devolved government and work to become more self-sufficient by supporting Welsh business and agriculture before thinking about independence. I miss the EU but it doesn't make sense to support Welsh independence on the basis that we'd run to the Brussels for money instead of London.”
However, some of the people I spoke to were firmly in favour of independence. Theo, 27, said that, “politically Wales has demonstrated that its citizens have different priorities to those in England – we have never had a Conservative majority in Wales but have been ruled by a Conservative UK government for years.
Independence for Wales (and other UK nations) should be part of the wider efforts against English colonialism. Wales has everything it needs to be an autonomous nation, and by all rights one which would function better than the UK currently is.”
Oskar, 23, stated that he believes Wales should be independent “so we can have a totally separate government from the rest of Britain and celebrate the economic, environmental and societal benefits of that along with our native culture and the beautiful language that's been diluted down into almost extinction.”
An anonymous contributor, 23, was in favour of independence because “the UK government doesn’t take us as a country seriously”.
Iggy, 24, also drew focus to England’s treatment of Welsh culture, saying that “England has never had the best interest of Wales or its people at heart, and England has an infamous hatred of Wales and has tried to stomp out our culture and heritage.” They also noted that “we are already a devolved nation in a lot of areas”, adding, “I find a lot of the decisions England makes and the behaviour of the country and the politicians who represent it to be frankly embarrassing and I don't want to be associated with that.”
Tom, 21, stated that independence would help “redistribute power from a distant, centralised and politically distinct (perpetually conservative) UK government to communities in Wales themselves. Self-governing communities are healthier communities. The current layout of power in the UK is biased towards Westminster elites and South East England.”
An anonymous contributor added: “Wales is more than capable of sustaining itself and will thrive when released from under England’s thumb. It deserves a chance to solidify its own identity, which it has always had but which has been forcibly quashed throughout history. We gain nothing from being under England’s control”.
If you’d like to read further information arguing the case for Welsh independence, you can access YesCymru’s ‘Independence in your pocket’ online here.