Wales Arts Review’s managing editor, Ben Glover, discusses the possible impacts the upcoming Scottish independence referendum could have on Wales.
Borders and sovereignty are fluid concepts. Though they seem to be permanent, set in granite or defined by natural boundaries, borders ebb and flow like the most tumultuous of shore lines. Europe from the beginning of the eighteenth century has witnessed the most violent of these tides; countries born, growing and dying within half a century. However, during this period, this age of extremes, Great Britain has remained apparently impervious to this turmoil, standing as a rock on the periphery of uncertainty. Despite this seeming credence, the vote for independence in Scotland will alter this country regardless of the outcome. Yes or No, the United Kingdom will be a different entity after 18th September 2014
There is little doubt that this independence vote for Scotland is a momentous and politically significant occasion; there are few examples throughout history of a country gaining independence with a bloodless campaign. Though no less culturally distinct than the other Celtic nations in the United Kingdom, language and heritage keep us unmistakeably separate, Wales has never demanded as much attention in Westminster as Scotland or Northern Ireland.
The discovery of North Sea Oil and sectarian concerns has focused much of the political discourse away from our needs as a country. Wales was often an afterthought before devolution, with institutions and media outlets referring to England AND Wales only when a new law was being drafted in Parliament. However Scotland votes, and this is an issue that ONLY Scotland can decide, there are far reaching implications for the rest of the United Kingdom and in particular Wales.
The most obvious implication of a Scottish Yes vote in the referendum for Wales will be the immediate loss of the Scottish Labour MPs from Westminster. Reviewing post-war politics in Great Britain it is easy to identify a discernible trend of the mainland Celtic nations returning socialist Members of Parliament – joined by an industrial heritage of working class collectivism, the Labour Party has often relied upon these countries to gain power. Only three times since 1945 has the Labour Party not needed their Scottish MPs to maintain overall control of Parliament. Therefore it is credible to assume that if Scotland votes Yes tomorrow, Wales would rarely be governed by a party it has voted for, as the Conservative Party (without David Cameron, as it is inconceivable that he could survive the break up of the Union as Party leader) could potentially dominate Westminster politics for decades.
Following on from this hypothesis it is possible to posit that as the Labour Party of England and Wales, as it attempts to regain power, could lurch further away from the more socialist and collectivist ideals of the Welsh Labour Party. This argument, and it is an argument that has been used consistently during this independence referendum, could potentially strengthen Plaid Cymru’s influence within Wales. Currently only controlling eleven seats out of sixty in the Senedd and three in Westminster, it is difficult to envisage Plaid not taking advantage of the perceived inconsistencies in the new two-tier Labour Party. Plaid’s centre left political rhetoric, and their Wales First policies, would certainly resonate with an electorate fearful of constant right-of-centre governments in Westminster.
Though there is little appetite in Wales currently for either Scottish or Welsh independence, the calls for change could accelerate after the vote returns on Friday if Scotland decided Yes. Politically the case for further powers to be devolved to the Senedd has already been stated by the Silk Commission, but it could potentially be advanced further by a fear of disenfranchisement due to the spectre of unrepresentative governance from Westminster. There is also a competitive cultural element that could impact upon Wales’ call for more devolved social powers after a Yes vote, which can be perceived through the introduction of new policies across the devolved bodies already in the United Kingdom.
As witnessed in their short existences, these devolved bodies have delivered many of their social policies in seeming competition with each other, from abolishing prescription charges to the banning of smoking in public places, it has been a noticeable trend that these elected parliaments want to claim ‘we were the first…’ in their introduction of social policy. Given the endless possibilities for a newly sovereign Scottish Parliament, and their ability to enact any policies that their electorate gives them a mandate for, might the people of Wales wish for a similar settlement?
The only inevitability to emerge from the Scottish independence referendum is that constitutional reform in the United Kingdom is guaranteed. The most obvious reform to the unwritten constitution will be if Scotland decides Yes, however, if the Scottish vote No the repercussions will be extraordinarily significant. By not allowing for a third option on the referendum ballot paper, there is no mandate for any further reforms after the vote – most Westminster parties have implied there will be further devolution of powers, but there is nothing other than a general consensus for change.
It has been long argued that the simplest settlement for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is that the United Kingdom becomes a federal state, in which these devolved bodies would have nearly complete autonomy over political decisions in their country and only rely upon Westminster for defence and foreign affairs. As a concept federalism is an attractive option, tax raising powers, plus the ability to prioritise national needs, but the likely outcome for any constitutional reform is the continuation of a two-tiered ‘devo-more’ policy by Westminster.
Already Wales is on the path to gain greater autonomy over its own policies, the aforementioned Silk Commission has indicated that the country is ready to develop more of its own future policies and in a greater number of devolved areas of governance. This will further establish a civic society in Wales, one that has been desperately lacking before devolution. The Senedd will need more civil servants that construct and frame new legislation, more financial experts that can draft larger and increasingly more complex budgets. In short, Wales will develop the bureaucracy needed to shape the country in its own image.
Another potential impact upon Wales from the Scottish referendum is the re-evaluation of the funding model used to adjust the amounts of public expenditure allocated to devolved parliaments. The Barnett Formula, devised and implemented in the preparation for the devolution referendums in 1979, has often been criticised for inequities in funding outcomes between the different regions of the United Kingdom. The creator of this funding formula, Lord Barnett, has described the perceived unfairness of his temporary fiscal policy, in both England and Wales, as a ‘terrible mistake’ and
It is unfair and should be stopped, it is a mistake. This way is terrible and can never be sustainable, it is a national embarrassment and personally embarrassing to me as well. If we want to give them some money after devo-max OK, but do it honestly and openly. Not by doing so under the table like this.
Currently it is believed that this funding gap for Wales equates to approximately £300 million per year. Though there is no certainty that a greater federalised system of governance would reduce this funding gap, a more devolved, more self assured, Senedd would be able to better represent Wales within the United Kingdom.
There are huge implications for Wales regardless of the outcome of tomorrow’s referendum and the question of independence is a question that Wales may one day have to answer for itself. There will be opportunities and difficulties following either possible outcome of the independence vote, but before Wales can give its answer, we need to develop a more complex civic society, with institutions that reflects our society and our needs. Scotland has had for centuries the tools and mechanisms needed to declare independence – its own separate laws, education and banking systems – but Wales, in comparison, needs these institutions to grow and mature. Whatever Scotland decides in the referendum, Wales will be a slightly different country on Friday morning.
To view the other entries in Wales Arts Review’s ‘Dear Scotland’ series click here!
Ben Glover is the managing editor of Wales Arts Review, a political essayist, activist and campaigner. After graduating from Cardiff Metropolitan University, Ben has worked for a number of political parties on various projects and elections, both on a local and national level. The primary focus of his academic research and political writings has been investigations into the structures of power in Wales and abroad.