HISTORIAN Patrick Wyman points out that a disaster doesn’t so much “break” a political system but merely reveals just how broken it already was. While it’s true that every state faces its own share of serious difficulties— what’s telling is how effectively they’re dealt with. Healthy states are resilient. Failing ones are not.
I was raised in a small village in the Valleys. It has a chapel, with a volunteer-run café, and a quiet village hall that barely gets used. Most of the young people have left to seek employment and opportunities elsewhere. Of the children who are too young to move away, forty percent live in poverty.
But had I been born sixty or seventy years earlier, the picture would look very different. There was a post office, a primary school, several family-run shops— including a butcher’s and a baker’s— and more than one pub. A hotel welcomed visitors from near and afar who arrived at the local train station. The chapel would be bursting at the seams every Sunday without fail. There was a colliery that provided stable employment, while also fostering a sense of camaraderie and community. That’s not to say that things were perfect either.
Wyman notes that the day-to-day experience of living in a “falling” empire can be surprisingly mundane. It isn’t a sudden event, but a process that unfolds over many lifetimes. My village didn’t wither over night— it happened in a piecemeal fashion. Even when I was in primary school, in 2010, there was still a post office and a corner shop. Now the nearest shop is over a mile away and is owned by Tesco.
The same was true for empires of yore. When the Roman Empire “collapsed”, it didn’t happen out of the blue. Taxes weren't collected, roads and bridges fell into disrepair, and before long, the village— or vicus— was cut off from the trade and transport network. Today's historians typically speak of a “transformation” rather than a sudden “fall”. Government corruption, political instability, economic crises, conflict, and a score of other disasters, big and small, natural and man-made, all chipped away at the foundations of the empire, leading to its ultimate demise.
Today we are living through a similar “transformation”— decades in the making. The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the deep fissures that were already present in the British state. More than 120,000 people have died as a result of Covid-19 in the UK, which is one of the highest death tolls anywhere on earth. "Every state and society faces serious challenges," Wyman notes, "the difference lies in whether the underlying structures are healthy enough to effectively respond to those challenges.”
Over the past year, we’ve witnessed cronyism and corruption on a massive scale. Substantial Covid contracts have been awarded to private companies such as McKinsey, Deloitte, and Serco— all with conspicuous connections to the Tory party. The CEO of Serco, for instance, is none other than Rupert Soames, the brother of former Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames, and a grandson of Winston Churchill. Dido Harding, the current head of ‘NHS Test and Trace’ in England, was appointed to the Lords by her friend David Cameron. And on the subject of the House of Lords, let’s not forget Boris Johnson’s slew of new appointments, which consolidate his party’s dominance over the unelected upper house.
Another unelected figure has also been making headlines. Recently, the Guardian uncovered evidence that the Queen has been using a “long-established convention” to exert influence on the creation of new laws in an attempt to hide her private wealth. Meanwhile, the Equality Trust has revealed that the UK has a “very high level” of income inequality compared to other developed countries. The wealthiest 1% of the UK population holds 23% of the total wealth.
The pandemic has also acted as a catalyst for the increasingly likely break-up of the United Kingdom. Fault lines opened by Brexit have deepened and widened, causing a rift between the nations of the Atlantic Archipelago. At the start of the pandemic, Boris Johnson assumed that he was acting as Prime Minister for the whole of the United Kingdom, but it soon became apparent that his reign— at least with respect to health policy— only extended over England. Boris began his tenure as PM by rebranding himself as 'Minister for the Union', but is now often only de facto Prime Minister of England.
The Celtic nations were initially perceived to be adopting a more “cautious and communitarian” approach to handling the pandemic than England. While Cymru, Scotland, and Northern Ireland retained the ‘stay at home’ message, England chose to opt instead for the risible ‘stay alert’ slogan. At times, the four nations have trodden their own distinctive paths, which has led to a heightened awareness and understanding of devolution across these isles.
The result for many in Cymru and Scotland has been to question the need for Westminster governance altogether. Over the past year, support for independence in Scotland has reached new heights; peaking at 58%. This is due in part to Brexit, which is opposed by the majority of the Scottish electorate, but it's also down to perceptions around how effectively the Scottish Government has been handling the pandemic. Nicola Sturgeon has by far the highest net satisfaction rating of any of the Scottish party leaders and most Scottish people think she's doing a significantly better job as FM than Boris Johnson is doing as PM.
Opinion polls routinely reveal majority support for Scottish independence. The SNP is on course to win a majority of seats at Holyrood in May's election and Alex Salmond's new party, Alba, aims to leverage the "wasted" pro-indy votes on the regional list to secure a "supermajority" in favour of independence. If May's election does return a majority of pro-independence MSPs, then the UK government will have no reasonable grounds on which to refuse another referendum. If another referendum is held, then there's every chance that Scotland will regain its independence shortly thereafter.
But where does that leave us? Support for Welsh independence has been growing steadily over the past couple of years and now sits at a record high of around 39%— with a majority of those aged 16-24 now in favour of independence. As in Scotland, this is due in part to positive perceptions around the Welsh Government and First Minister's handling of the pandemic in comparison to Downing Street. Sixty per cent of the Welsh public think that the Welsh Government is managing the pandemic well, versus 39% who feel the same about the UK government. A majority of Welsh voters (54%) also think Mark Drakeford is handling the pandemic well, compared to 36% in the case of Boris Johnson.
If Scotland does regain its independent within the next few years, then this could trigger a sudden and seismic shift in Welsh politics. Those who were previously opposed to independence might change their minds over night. The situation could escalate rapidly.
Cognisant of this eventuality, the leader of Plaid Cymru Adam Price has recently committed to holding a referendum on independence by 2026 if his party is able to command a majority government after May’s Senedd election. A recent poll indicates that 31% of Welsh voters are in favour of holding a referendum in this time frame. According to Price, unless there's a mechanism in place to trigger a referendum shortly after Scotland's departure, then there's a real danger that Cymru could be "left behind" as part of a "rump United Kingdom" in a new "England-and-Wales" formation. For Price, this would be "the ultimate worst of all worlds" scenario.
The same point was recently raised by YesCymru chair Siôn Jobbins in an interview with RT. According to Jobbins, Cymru would have approximately “12 to 18 months" after Scotland leaves in which to hold its own referendum. "If it doesn’t happen that quickly", Jobbins says, "maybe it doesn’t happen at all."
In Islwyn Ffowc Elis' prescient science fiction novel Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd (A Week in Future Wales), the protagonist Ifan Powel travels in a time machine to the year 2033. Powel makes two journeys. The first journey takes him to the author's utopian vision of Cymru; a country which has secured self government, is economically prosperous, and socially harmonious. But on his second journey, Powel encounters a dystopian future, where all traces of Welsh identity, culture, and language have all but disappeared. The country has been renamed "Western England" and is covered by a dense forest, punctuated by airstrips and military bases, as well as national parks and reservoirs. Believe it or not, but the Welsh Government has already published plans to create a 'National Forest for Wales'!
Twenty thirty-three is only a dozen years away and it's still not clear yet, which of these futures will most resemble our own. To implement Brexit, May's government initiated a process of recentralisation that has only accelerated under Johnson's premiership. A notable example of this is the Internal Market Act, which was described by Mark Drakeford as “a direct attack on devolution” . There's also the so-called 'Levelling Up Fund', which allows the UK government to directly finance projects in Cymru by working with local authorities; effectively bypassing devolution altogether.
The integrity of our nation is also being undermined on a daily basis by cross-border economic partnerships such as Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine, and Western Gateway. The leader of the Welsh Conservatives Andrew RT Davies is also calling for more concrete projects to quell calls for constitutional reform in the form of "Union Highways" which, in his own words, are designed to "boost important cross-border growth." And let's not forget about the scrapping of the Severn bridge tolls either. Some experts call this 'infrastructure imperialism', while others prefer the more neutral term 'infrastructure diplomacy'. It's an ancient strategy, once used by the Romans who built a sprawling network of paved roads as a conduit for military and commercial activity to control their empire under the maxim Divide et Impera— 'Divide and Rule'.
With Scottish independence looking increasingly likely, and a United Ireland looking almost inevitable, Cymru will soon have its own decision to make: independent country or English county?