With under two weeks to go until Scotland’s landmark poll on independence, London based media have taken a renewed interest in the implications of a ‘Yes’ vote for the rest of the UK. This is also true of the media and commentators in Wales which, as one of two other devolved territories in the United Kingdom, will be keeping a keen eye on developments on 18 September.
And for good reason! The debate in Scotland has split the political parties in Wales in terms of their support for Yes Scotland and Better Together, with Plaid Cymru supporting the nationalists’ campaign for secession, and the three UK wide parties with a presence in the Assembly supporting the Union. But these dynamics are not simply a replication of attitudes at Westminster – they are underlined by a deeper awreness that Wales stands to be impacted significantly, regardless of the result.
Plaid Cymru have been unapologetic in their support for the Yes campaign, with the party’s own constitution committed to achieving Welsh independence. The gains made by the Yes campaign have, however, placed advocates of Welsh independence in a difficult position. Support for Welsh independence continues to hover at around 10% and, whilst the prospect of a successful independent Scotland might whet the appetite for a similar arrangement in Scotland, many Welsh nationalists will be the first to admit that the Welsh economy could not at present sustain the level of public service provision expected by and accustomed to by the Welsh population without financial input from Westminster.
For unionists in Wales, a Scottish exit carries with it a further threat, namely a reduction in Wales’ influence in a Union where England becomes even more dominant. The loss of 59 Scottish MPs in the Commons would leave Wales’s 40 and Northern Ireland’s 18 representatives against a massive 598 from England, sparking fresh fears of a democratic deficit and a call for a rebalancing of the Union. Cue Welsh First Minster Carwyn Jones AM and his calls for a constitutional convention. But, with the publication of the first polling over the weekend suggesting a lead by the Yes campaign, renewed discussion of enhanced devolution for Scotland in a bid to ‘save’ the Union has sparked calls from Cardiff Bay for Wales to be treated on an equal footing, with the First Minister commenting “Whatever further devolution is offered to Scotland must be on offer to Wales and Northern Ireland”.
Such a move, however, might not be so simple and much depends on the detail of proposals offered to Scotland as a reward for staying in the Union. Financial powers are particularly important here – Scottish Labour’s proposals include the maintenance of the Barnett formula by which the territories of the UK are funded – a system which benefits Scotland substantially, but has been slated in Wales for awarding the country less than its ‘fair share.’ The Labour Party leadership must tread carefully here if they want to avoid saving one part of the UK at the cost of alienating another. First Minster Carwyn Jones went on to explain that whilst he was seeking equal powers, this did not include income tax varying powers if not accompanied by Barnett reform. Critics might suggest that Mr Jones would have his cake and eat it, but his concerns no doubt echo those expressed by nationalists about the Welsh economy’s ability to adequately support public services under its own steam – whether within the union or without!
A final point of observation from Wales concerns the issue of narrow majorities. If the Yes campaign secures a victory – no matter how narrow – the results of course will be far reaching. But there is perhaps a cautionary tale here from Wales. The establishment of the National Assembly for Wales followed a hairline Yes vote of just 50.3% in 1997. Whilst support for devolution has increased substantially since, this slim endorsement at the outset remains a constant point of reference for a small but vocal anti-devolution camp which continues to oppose and frustrate moves to devolve further powers to Wales. However triumphant secessionists may be on 19 September if the vote swings in their favour, Scottish ministers should bear in mind the perils of a narrow majority which could undermine their mandate to negotiate a settlement along their preferred lines, and turn into a millstone around their necks as they sit down to determine the dynamics of a tartan divorce.