A few years ago, I spent a little time looking into whether I had any Irish ancestors. As a Welshman, this did not fill me with a particular sense of pride, considering that I’m probably as Irish as your average attendee at a mid-1980s Pogues gig at an average provincial polytechnic.
However, it did get me thinking a big ‘what if?’ question, embodying the potentially conflicting perspectives of how a social democrat such as myself with predominantly pro-European views could possibly contemplate the idea of an independent Wales. It was a loaded question, whatever the question actually meant in practice. This ‘independence’, I naturally contemplated, should it ever be put to a vote of the Welsh electorate, would surely be linked to proposed membership of the European Union.
This would surely neutralise the ongoing effects of the injurious loss of EU citizenship in 2016/2020 (depending on where you choose your own ‘Year Zero’) and the economic void that comes as a certainty in a separation from a UK that I am, nevertheless, quite fond of.
This delineation of definitive nationhood arguably runs counter to the ideology and intellectualism of one of my heroes, Raymond Williams, the Welsh New Left academic, critic, and writer. He notably and lucidly declared that borders exist to be crossed.
Borders to be crossed
This has been interpreted as referring predominantly to an intellectual form of disciplinary exceptionalism within academic life, within the context of overcoming psychological barriers to personal emancipation, via the freedom to participate in a variety of social fields, and in the neutralisation of social closure. Things are, put more plainly, stronger, more supportive, and more versatile when acting in unison.
Williams also understood how other types of border, such as between the rural and the urban, or the systematic, manipulated aspects of human ‘capital’ (such as access to education) were equally restrictive. He arguably never shirked the abundantly political context of such thinking; that in the context of, among other things, international socialism, the idea of borders being anything but abstract and temporary is only arguably observed by those who wish to perceive a form of separation and, quite often, engage in the exercise of power.
This thinking is wider and deeper and, perhaps, for another time. In short, Wales is in possession of a pervious ‘border’ that it shares with England. It exists as manifest in metal roadside signs that welcome us into Wales and remind us of the misery of leaving it. But signs are all that exists to demarcate one acre from another, one nation from another, one history and culture from another; history and culture that is, so often, shared. A problem is that our actual border with the rest of the world is now seemingly closed.
Independence and isolation
A few months ago, I was meandering through my occasionally stimulating, but mostly despondency-inducing, Twitter feed when I became engaged with people supportive of the Yes! Cymru campaign for a Welsh independence vote. In light of my practical, but personally regrettable, passing desire to obtain an Irish passport and thereby freedom of movement, I was keen to garner opinion from these passionate supporters of Welsh self-determination.
I was anxious to discover their views on the presumably inextricable issues of Welsh independence and European Union membership. Surely, I thought, it must be similar to the Scottish situation of self-determination and EU application? The promise of a Welsh passport, complete with a golden dragon resplendent upon textured burgundy, that would lead to the restoration of rights to travel, work, settle, trade freely, and assist in forging an EU future once again, was sincerely appealing.
To be fair, it was very pragmatic and instrumental, but I was open to discussion on this subject for the first time in my life. This Welsh independence thing, I figured, could be about to get turbo-charged. However, to my surprise, I discovered that the prevailing mood – or direction – towards Welsh independent nationhood appeared hidden behind something of a protracted process that would firstly see a vote on independence from the UK. And then, at some undefined point in the future (i.e. once independent from the UK and the EU), a referendum question on joining the EU put to the Welsh electorate if said electorate asked for one.
My immediate response was one of bafflement. I was understanding that this independence campaign – advocating initial independence from everything by the look of it – could be founded on the enormous risk of isolating Wales, at least at first, from just about all it needs to prosper. I have no deeper evidence at my fingertips beyond common sense and intuition that this would cause immense harm to the Welsh economy, yet am completely convinced that it could be catastrophic.
Taking the hit
Evidence is trickling in that the initial ‘hit’ to Welsh economics would be less than feared, but it still at least feels like a hit, like punching a bruise. And the negotiations of how to divvy up the debt and the tax take would be tortuous. That said, Doyle and others are contributing to the discourse, and this should be welcomed.
Considering the course of events that could lead to potential future economic and political independence, Wales voted – narrowly – to leave the EU in 2016. Although such a belief now seems to be diminishing as the human cost of Brexit becomes more visible in our everyday lives, and perceptible in the cost of living crisis.
An independence vote may well be straightforward, but an accession vote for EU membership could be the point where the dream goes bad; the well was poisoned in 2016 and it can be again. While Wales can invest in important infrastructure, such as leading a march for renewables and, perhaps, technological development, membership of the EU would encourage – almost demand – investment and support.
Access to streams of money would be needed to assist us in growing the brand, reinforcing our identity, encouraging and supporting research. Let the symptomatic Oxbridge loss of £130mn Horizon Europe money be an incentive to ‘think our way to prosperity’ via EU partnerships.
It would also support committing to wider, tangible social justice in our communities. EU membership must surely be attached to any independence vote, promising to those who wish to be persuaded that joining the bloc would provide security and stability to an emerging nation. I cannot see how a separation of the questions of independence and EU membership can be anything but foolhardy.
A century ago, it turns out, I was destined to miss a contemporary Irish/EU passport by one generation. But Wales’s emerging generation deserves better than such ill chance. Whether we consent to a new, revitalised European freedom of movement as an independent nation or as a continued member of the UK is moot, but it’s a conversation we need to have imminently.
Becoming an independent nation encased within one border is, however, inconceivably limiting and overtly ridiculous in an interconnected world. Borders are there to be crossed, after all.