By MARCUS STEAD
TO THE untrained eye, months of chaos and confusion at Westminster appear to have resulted in raised levels of interest in Welsh independence.
Crowds in the low thousands have attended ‘independence’ marches in Cardiff and Caernarfon. Labour’s Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford and his predecessor Carwyn Jones have made noises that a badly-handled Brexit could lead to the breakup of the union.
But a closer look beyond the sympathetic reporting from an almost entirely anti-Brexit Welsh media, and it quickly becomes clear that these are the dying screams of a finished cause. Plaid Cymru and the wider Welsh nationalist movement fear a successful Brexit, because they know it will kill their movement stone dead.
Welsh nationalism has always been something of a niche cause. Opinion polls have for many years shown levels of support fluctuating between 9-15%. Plaid Cymru has around 8,000 members, compared to 125,000 for its Scottish equivalent, the SNP. The ‘Yes Cymru’ movement, while very noisy and aggressive on social media, only has around 1,200 members.
If Brexit goes ahead on October 31, or at any time in the months ahead, their vision of an ‘independent’ Wales within the European Union will quickly be exposed as absurd and completely unfeasible. There are four main reasons why this is the case.
First of all, an independent Wales would have to go through the process of joining the EU. This, in itself, would take many years, quite possibly a decade or more. How would an independent Wales manage in the meantime?
Wales would almost certainly fail the EU’s membership criteria, particularly with regards to the existence of a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU.
Wales has a lack of entrepreneurial zeal. It is heavily reliant on the public sector for employment and there is little in the way of a skilled private sector. Just one of the FTSE top 100 companies is based in Wales (vehicle insurance firm Admiral), and even that was founded by an American.
Figures released last month by the Office for National Statistics showed public spending in Wales was £13.7 billion more than the total amount collected in taxes, which works out at a deficit of £4,376 per person.
At present, around 80% of the Welsh Government’s funding comes directly from Westminster (ie the English taxpayer) in the form of a block grant. Making up that shortfall in a post-independence Wales seems beyond comprehension in itself, but the problem is far worse than that.
In an independent Wales, the Welsh Government would have to assume responsibility for, and therefore fund, areas of policy that are not currently devolved, including foreign policy, defence, law and order, work and pensions, and broadcasting.
According to the Welsh Government, Wales currently receives £680 million per year in EU funds. In an independent Wales, with the Westminster block grant withdrawn, an EU already struggling to balance its books would have to plug the huge hole, a burden it’s hard to imagine Brussels bureaucrats being been on shouldering.
If an independent Wales could somehow overcome these hurdles (and it’s hard to see how), point two would present another tough obstacle – the country would be forced to adopt the euro, as all new EU members are. This would be a very hard sell to the people of Wales.
Nearly two decades after the euro launched, it is becoming increasingly clear that one currency, with one interest rate, and 19 finance ministers is not working out well.
The inability of the 19 member states to adjust interest rates to suit their circumstances, along with the fiscal spending rules, has led to mass unemployment, especially among young people, in vast swathes of southern Europe (currently an eye-watering 32% in Greece). It’s easy to imagine how an independent Wales inside the euro could well end up in a similar position.
Point three is the issue of the border with England. If you think the Northern Ireland border and the issue of the backstop is an enormous headache, you ain’t seen nothing yet! The border between England and Wales runs for a whopping 160 miles from the Dee estuary in the north to the Severn estuary in the south.
There are two well-known Severn bridges linking Wales with the South West, where vehicle tolls were removed in late 2018, more than 52 years after they were imposed when the first bridge opened. In addition, thousands of vehicles cross daily and seamlessly each day along the A48 between South Wales and the Midlands.
Then there is the situation in north east Wales. The reality is that a very large number of people in Denbighshire and Flintshire don’t think in terms of being in England or Wales. They are aligned economically and culturally to Cheshire, Merseyside and Lancashire. They use the many roads crossing between the two countries for work, leisure and recreation.
Then there are the numerous smaller road crossings between England and Wales along Offa’s Dyke, plus railway lines and footpaths. Managing a hard border between the two countries would prove logistically impossible, and would undoubtedly cause a farcical amount of inconvenience for commuters.
The fourth and final point relates to the huge amount of cross-border integration that exists between England and Wales, and the necessity for new bodies to be created after separation.
This takes many forms. For example, Welsh patients with serious liver problems are frequently treated at the Liver and HPB unit in Birmingham.
The DVLA’s base for the whole of the UK is in Swansea, and is one of the city’s largest employers, with more than 5,000 staff. After separation, this would have to be relocated elsewhere, and a separate body for vehicle registration created for Wales, at the Welsh taxpayer’s expense.
A similar situation would apply to Companies House, whose headquarters in Cardiff and Nantgarw employs more than 1,000 staff.
Welsh nationalism has always been a minority cause, but Brexit will render it beyond absurd and expose it as totally impractical.