Too poor to be independent: the same old story


by Siôn Jobbins

“Wales is too poor to be independent. It’s not economically viable.” Funny, were Wales given a penny every time somebody said that, then Wales would certainly be economically viable!

This ‘can’t afford independence’ is a common refrain by commentators and politicians alike, and is currently used with great gusto as an argument against Scottish independence.  But a quick glance through the articles, editorials and letters page of the past makes it clear that Wales and Scotland haven’t been the only European countries ‘which can’t afford independence’.  It seems to be the standard line every time a small country strives for freedom.

Malta was one example.  An editorial in The Times on 7 January 1959 noted gravely:

“Malta cannot live on its own … the island could pay for only one-fifths of her food and essential imports; well over a quarter of the present labour force would be out of work and the economy of the country would collapse with out British Treasury subventions.  Talk of full independence for Malta is therefore hopelessly impractical.”

The Times published a letter on 21 January 1964 by a Joseph Agius of Ta’ Xbiex on Malta stating fearfully of:

“… the folly of giving independence to Malta when we are not economically prepared for it.”

Malta gained independence on 21 September 1964.  It is essentially a city state on a barren rock; from a British point of view it was a very large dock.  In 2009 its GDP at $23,800 per capita was similar to other former imperial port cities like Liverpool, Newcastle or Marseilles.

Norway was another country which ‘couldn’t afford independence’.  Like Malta prior to independence, it had an amount of self-government, but within Sweden.  One of the great bones of contention for Norway was that the consular service and tariffs were biased towards the more agrarian Swedish economy rather than the exporting Norwegian one.  Even though the call for greater independence was widely felt across Norway, there were still some who were afraid of it and its consequences.

On 6 July 1892, The Times published a letter by ‘RH’ entitled, ‘A Warning from Norway’:

“… I may add that, as regards the immediate point of consular representation, the opinion of the commercial class in both kingdoms, as expressed in the chambers of commerce, beginning with the Norwegian capital itself, is decidedly hostile to it … At the same time it seems scarcely possible that the leaders of the movement can clearly realise the fate they are preparing for the country by what may well be termed a suicidal agitation … would not a free national existence but subserviency, not to say bondage to Russia … [Norway] reduced to conditions of a central Asian khanate.”

Norway gained independence on 13 May 1905.  It didn’t become a ‘central Asian khanate’.

In a rare article on Icelandic politics, the Guardian wrote a sentence on 23 March 1908, which I guess has been used for all former colonies:

“It is very interesting to note that in this connection that Denmark has to pay a heavy price for her nominal possession of Iceland in the form of a large annual subvention [that word again!] to the Budget of the island.”

To bring us closer to our present time, Slovakia gained independence in the famous ‘Velvet Divorce’ in 1993 and again the questions of its future were raised.  In a generally balanced editorial, the Independent on 31 December 1992 noted:

“… there is no shortage of potential disputes. Currency union is doomed, with the Czechs determined to balance their budget and the Slovaks expected to head down the road of deficit financing and inflation.”

The Guardian’s report two days after independence of the two new states on 3 January 1993 highlighted that:

“Many people see the split as a failure and others are nervous about proving themselves in an uncertain world.”

What no report on Slovak (or Czech, Norwegian, Icelandic or Maltese) independence seem to suggest or foresee is the economic success which they have been.

In this respect, the general tone of the British mindset varies from a mild independence-scepticism to hostility towards most forms of independence.  A scepticism which is at times more irrational and unscientific than that which the ‘romantic’ nationalists are accused of.

There are presently 192 members of the UN – they can all ‘afford independence’.  This month there will be another when the UN will accept its latest member, South Sudan.  Yes, South Sudan can ‘afford independence’.  There is also another country which is expected to declare independence this summer.  It is the one country which in terms of its fractured geography, fractious politics and crippled economy you would expect to hear an argument that it ‘can’t afford independence’.  That country is Palestine.  However, in much the same way that Scotland seems to be uniquely the only oil-producing country in the world which British left wingers think would be poorer with independence, Palestine seems to be the only state which no left winger questions if it could ‘afford independence’.

Which leads me to question if there is a deeper reason for the historic reaction which some of our self-appointed ‘progressive’ friends have against independence for smaller European nations?

In a little quoted article titled ‘The Magyar Struggle’ in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung on 13 January 1849 the co-founder of Communism, Freidrich Engels wrote of the ‘primitive’ and ‘counter-revolutionary peoples’ of Europe.  These were nations such as the Basques, Bretons, Scottish Highlanders and Serbians whom he patronised for not having even reached the stage of capitalism.  He calls them ‘völkerabfälle’ (racial trash / residual nations).  He says:

“… these residual fragments of peoples always become fanatical standard-bearers of counter-revolution and remain so until their complete extirpation or loss of their national character, just as their whole existence in general is itself a protest against a great historical revolution.”

Is this the root of the historical world-view among some so-called progressives, of deep hostility towards independence for some European nations ?  Is it that these progressives (and economists) see the larger nations, as Engels would say as “the main vehicle of historical development” to the detriment of smaller nations who seem, by definition, to be insular and counter-revolutionary?

But back to July 2010.  Of course, South Sudan gaining independence is hardly an economic inspiration for Welsh independence.  Not even the South Sudanese wish to celebrate their economic fortune.  But then, the comparison for all economic scenarios, pre or post independence, in the short term at least, is the context of the neighbouring countries.

So, let’s discuss independence in another frame?  Maybe we should view economic independence in light of it just being another economic transition.

The Welsh economy has been through several major economic transitions; agrarian in the early 19th century, then an industrial revolution, and a managed (or badly managed) process of de-industrialisation.

Independence would be but another economic transition.  No Welsh economist or politician would advocate the Welsh economy to be the same in 20 years time as it is now.  There will be change whatever happens, so why not a more fundamental economic change with independence as the vehicle?

There are of course those who argue that Wales is ‘too poor’ and I’ll leave that debate to those more capable than me in the statistical war of attrition but I’ll make a few comments.

The Welsh economy has been in historic decline since 1923 when the price of coal peaked.  During that time Wales has been through 3 of the 5 stages of constitutional states.  It’s been governed as an integral part of ‘the Realm of England’ (1536-1959); as a part of England but with some administrative functions – the Welsh Office period (1959-1999); and as a state with some self-government (1999 until the present day).

There are two stages left, generally speaking.  The first is self-government with some taxation powers and then independence.  Both the first three constitutional settlements have not improved Wales’s economic well-being.  Why not, from an economic point of view, try the other two?

In the same way that I believe independence is a vehicle to revive a weak language and culture I believe economic independence is the best way to revive a weak economy.  It is the journey as well as the destination.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so.  As predictable as the articles ‘can the Turnip-eaters afford independence?’ are the articles post independence by the same papers which point how better off, economically and culturally, the countries are.

One quick example, again from that barren rock in the North Atlantic, Iceland – the little country which had the courage to tell their bankers where to go.

On, 1 December 1938, twenty years and a World War after The Guardian’s dire assessment, the Times wrote a glowing report on Iceland’s twentieth anniversary of independence from Denmark.  Subtitled with the decidedly modernist, ‘Roads and Radio’ the Times notes succinctly:

“Side by side with the political liberation of the country, developed the gradual economic emancipation of the island.”

The article continues by outlining the many benefits gained since independence, especially in the fields of modern communications.

So what of Wales?  Wales today is guilty of voting for a sort of national Gombeenism form of economic politics.  The Gombeen man is the Irish politician who’s only out to get some economic or social gain for his constituency, devoid of a broader political or philosophical outlook.  Wales, by belatedly wanting ‘fair funding’ from Westminster, sulking over ‘unfair cuts’, ‘demanding’ electrification of railways, but shirking responsibility over large energy generating projects or taxation policies is only furthering the Gombeen image of itself.  It’s humiliating and unnecessary.

In his recent article, ‘Small is cute, sexy and successful: Why Independence for Wales and other countries makes Economic Sense’ in the Harvard Kennedy Review, Adam Price makes a case for independence for ‘small’ nations.  He compares the economic fortunes of independent Luxembourg and its neighbour, the German province, Saarland since the Second World War.  The case is compelling.  A similar case could possible be made in relation to Singapore which became independent of Malaysia in 1965 and Zanzibar which lost its independence and joined Tanganyika to form Tanzania in 1964.

But we needn’t look to foreign lands for inspiration or precedent.  There’s a successful case of Wales not being ‘too poor to be independent’ in every parish in our land – the founding of the Church in Wales in 1922.

Like those Wilsonian new East European states, it could hardly have been formed at a worse time!  After 800 years, the Welsh church became independent during what the Rev D.T. W. Price in his book; A History of the Church in Wales in the Twentieth Century (1990) calls ‘the locust years’.  “Nonetheless,” as the Rev Price notes, “by 1937 it was generally felt, and rightly so, that the financial condition of the Church in Wales was as sound as it had been before disestablishment.”

Independence would force politicians and us voters in Wales to grow up.  We would be economically viable because we would have to be – we’d have to learn to swim.  Let’s look at ‘good practice’.  After communism, bling-capitalism, imperialism, state socialism, supra-national states or religious statehood, the nation-state and independence is the one political construct which not one state or people has turned its back on.  Independence works.  It’s time Wales made independence work for her.

This article appeared in the Welsh Independence Blogspot and is republished here with permission.  Siôn is author of the book The Phenomenon of Welshness, published by Carreg Gwalch.