A mixed welcome in Wales for idea of full independence

2019-10-01 点击次数 :69次

A harpist takes a break from busking in a bustling Carmarthen shopping street to discuss two of his great passions: music and politics.

The music is going well – shoppers are digging deep to show their appreciation – and can afford to pause to talk about the future of Wales.

"Ideally I would like an independent Welsh state. If it's good enough for Lithuania, Latvia or Montenegro, why not ?" he asks. "There's no reason why we could not be independent. Welsh people are more confident, more aware of and at ease with their identity."

But, perhaps significantly, Tywyn no longer sees independence as the be all and end all. "Ten years ago I had fire in my belly for independence, now it's more of a nominal question. Since 1997 we have had a democracy. The sovereignty of Wales lies with the people and that may be more important than having a seat at the United Nations. We're in a good place now and we're in for an interesting few years."

The times certainly are interesting. Earlier this year the Welsh people voted in favour of their assembly being able to make its own laws in 20 devolved areas without having to ask Westminster for its blessing. A commission will soon begin examining if ought to be able to borrow money and set its own tax rates and to judge whether it should have still more devolved powers.

And all those interested in politics are keeping a beady eye on . If it were to become independent, where would that leave the union? Where would it leave Wales? Llio Silyn, owner of the Welsh-language bookshop in Carmarthen market, believes her customers are ever more interested in politics and more secure in their Welsh identity.

"Back in the 60s we were told we would be useless economically, we were too small and lots of people were scared at the idea of independence.

"I don't think Welsh people feel like that now. I think people are much more confident in who they are. That doesn't mean they are against the English but it does mean they are against being told what to do by the Westminster parliament."

, in south-west Wales, has played an important role in the country's modern political history. In 1966 the nationalist party won its first parliamentary seat here.

In the constitutional referendum of 1997 the Carmarthenshire result was the last to come in – and sealed the creation of the first Welsh assembly.

Carmarthenshire saw the biggest turnout for on primary lawmaking powers, with almost three-quarters here agreeing that the Welsh assembly ought to be able to make its own laws in devolved areas such as education, health and housing.

Alun Lenny, a town councillor and Carmarthen's sheriff, believes this year's referendum result shows there is a yearning among Welsh people to push on towards greater self-government.

He agrees that Welsh people are much more secure about who they are. "Much of the demand for devolution arose from resentment against the UK parliament. Now we can see the chance of getting more control of our own affairs and people are feeling more relaxed, less resentful."

New research on Welsh identity is intriguing. Data from the University of Aberystwyth suggests the number of "Welsh" people who define themselves as Welsh, not British, has dropped over the past four years from around 25% to 19%. The thinking is that as devolution rolls on and the people of Wales feel more in control they do need to be quite so fervent about identifying themselves only as Welsh.

At the student union bar of the University of Wales Trinity St David's Carmarthen campus, the young voters are interested in talking politics but not as gung-ho about devolution or independence as might be expected.

Spencer Cutlan, who studies physical education, defines himself as a proud Welshman but says he has no hankerings after independence. "We're better as a team working together," he says.

Laura Evans, a drama student, says: "Maybe we could move quicker to improve things if we were independent." She admits though that she sees Wales as a "little place". "If we were independent it might make us poorer. I'm split," she says.

Wales's first minister, , may take comfort from such sentiments. He hopes he never sees an independent Wales. "'Why?' is the question I ask," he says. "What would be the purpose? There are two reasons countries become independent. Firstly because of war, secondly because there's a financial advantage. Neither applies to Wales. There are no major sectarian issues in Wales, thankfully, nor are we in a position where we can say if we were independent we'd be far better off.

"So why be independent? We can be proud of our identity, we can be proud of having a Welsh government and a Welsh assembly while at the same time be a comfortable and happy part of the UK."

Jones is speaking in a grand office overlooking Cathays Park in Cardiff. It used to be the base of the secretary of state for Wales. Smiling, Jones, Swansea-born and a fluent Welsh speaker, says the locals have taken over.

The Labour-led government is looking forward to using its shiny new primary powers as it embarks on .

But, naturally in these fluid times, he has to keep a close eye on what is going on in Westminster, Belfast and, especially, Edinburgh. "I'd very much regret if Scotland left the UK. It's an important part of the UK. If it did leave what would be left would be a very different country," says Jones.

"There would need to be a lot of thought given to constitutional issues, to the nature of the relationship between the three [remaining] constituent parts of the UK. It wouldn't simply be case of Scotland's gone, we'll carry on as before, that simply wouldn't happen.

"It doesn't lead to independence for Wales, but there would need to be thought given to the way in which the UK parliament would operate. Hopefully, this is all hypothetical."

That is not to say that Jones believes a status quo is desirable or possible. The 1997 referendum result that led to the creation of the Welsh assembly was wafer-thin. But this year's referendum over greater powers resulted in a substantial majority in favour.

"Wales has changed. There is a strong appetite in Wales for devolution, for deepening devolution, extending devolution in some areas, but not for independence and certainly not for the maximalist model that Scotland might want to pursue," says Jones.

His government () does not want the power to vary income tax, partly because the porous border between England and Wales makes such a levy problematic.

"What we're interested in are areas of taxation where you don't have mobility of people – landfill tax, stamp duty, aggregates levy, all these areas where devolution of fairly minor taxes could make quite a difference to what we do here. Air passenger duty is an area of taxation we'd be interested in looking at.

"We need to look at the issue of borrowing. It wouldn't be right for every other government in the UK to borrow apart from us to fund larger capital projects."

The first minister is also pushing for what he sees as fairer funding for Wales. The concluded last year that under the Barnett formula – used to calculate the grant money due from the Treasury – Wales was underfunded by £400m in 2010/11. "Our objective is to obtain the funding we believe we are entitled to," he says.

But there is a sticking point. "The reality is that where you have Scottish politicians involved in the Treasury then reopening Barnett is difficult for them because Scotland would lose out. Scotland we know is overfunded."

He is worried at the prospect of the number of Welsh MPs being cut from 40 to 30. "You get to the point with only 30 MPs where you wonder what kind of effect or influence they could possibly have in Westminster."

And on the West Lothian question? "There is no answer to the West Lothian question save creating an English parliament. So in the best traditions of the British constitution things muddle through."

A lawyer by profession, Jones believes Wales also ought to move towards having a legal system of its own – but "nothing too different to England".

One of the most encouraging aspects of recent is the development of a "thinking civic society", he says. He believes creative young people of a political bent are staying in Wales rather than heading off to London (or even Edinburgh) to further their careers.

"I see younger civil servants here who years ago would have gone to where the action was as they saw it – to Whitehall. Their expertise is now being used in Wales and that can only be a good thing."

The Welsh national poet, , puts it more succinctly.

"It took a long time for the Welsh people to realise the grown-ups don't live in London. We can get on with things very well here," she says. She believes Wales's political strength is its modest size. You can bump into politicians at agricultural shows or arts events and take them to task, she says.

And they have time to introduce legislation on "smaller but important" issues such as the recent law . They are not distracted, she says, by conflicts in Afghanistan or Libya.

At the , John Osmond argues that the experience of living through the 1997 and 2011 referendums ,as well as the referendum in 1979 when the people voted against the establishment of the Welsh assembly, has had a "galvanising impact" on the country's citizens.

"It made them more willing to contemplate constitutional options. The referendums have accelerated Welsh progress towards autonomy," he says.

Osmond, director of the institute, believes that while the number of people wanting independence had not shifted much since 1997 (it is around the 13% mark), the number in favour of a Scottish-style parliament has almost doubled to just more than a third. "Although the destination of Welsh devolution remains uncertain, two things are clear," he says. "The direction is in favour of more powers and the pace is accelerating."

The leader of , Ieuan Wyn Jones, agrees that times are changing faster than had been anticipated, largely because of what is happening in Scotland. "We will have to consider further constitutional steps quicker than anybody thought," he says. He hopes that the next stage will see the Welsh government getting more financial powers.

"There's something odd about an institution like the assembly that can't raise a single penny of its funding while a normal community council at least has a precept that it raises."

Wyn Jones flags up the problem for Labour – Wales has long been a stronghold for the UK party but if Wales moves further towards autonomy that weakens the national Labour party's ability to win power across Britain.

He sees a "tremendous upsurge in confidence" among Welsh people. "Devolution is about taking responsibility for the things that matter most – health, education, economic development, housing, planning, transport, the things that affect your everyday life. People want those decisions to be taken closer to them."

Cheryl Gillan, the Conservative secretary of state for Wales, says these are "interesting times and exciting times" but is sceptical about Carwyn Jones's suggestion that the people of Wales are ready for a deepening devolution.

"If they wanted deepening devolution I think you'd have seen a much higher turnout for [this year's referendum on] primary powers," she says. Though the result was clear – 63% in favour – turnout was only 35%.

"The politicians are always wanting more power and more money. They have just got primary powers." The implication is that Jones should get on and use those powers effectively.

Gillan is speaking at her office at Gwydyr House, the HQ of the across the road from Downing Street. She is reluctant to accept this as a critical moment for the union. "It's very dangerous to lump Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland in one basket."

She argues that asymmetrical devolution means "everyone is in a different place" and concludes: "Wales's future is within the United Kingdom."

Such a sentiment is not universally popular among the many fiercely pro-devolutionists in parts of mid and north Wales. This was once the land of Owain Glyndwr, the 15th-century Welsh leader who led an unsuccessful uprising against the English.

His parliament building in Machynlleth has seen service since then as a grain house, library and meeting room. It is now a modest , although there are ambitious plans for a £3m extension. Henry Evans, the chairman of the centre, believes Glyndwr continues to inspire Welsh people. "Were it not for Glyndwr's campaign, it's doubtful there would be a parliament in Cardiff today."

Evans believes the modern-day assembly will grow in power and authority and create something new for Wales. Glyn Jones, a former local government worker and now a trustee of the centre, is all for more powers for Wales. "Over the centuries Wales has produced a lot of the wealth for Britain. I don't think that has filtered back to Wales," he says. "It won't happen in my lifetime but I don't think it will take us another 600 years to become independent."

Outside the centre a group of 16- and 17-year-old schoolgirls share a pizza. They also share their thoughts on the state of their country. The girls do not know who their first minister is – the only name they can come up with is Rhodri Morgan, who stepped down from the post almost two years ago.

"We should be independent," says one. "We don't want the Queen. The English killed our king Llywelyn [who is regarded as the last leader of a united and independent Wales and died at the hand of an English lancer in 1282].

Her friend is not convinced. "Without England we would be stuck, we need them for back-up."

It is the sort of disagreement that will, no doubt, crop up time and again.