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Independent Nation by Will Hayward review: Wales, independence and class inequality

A new book asks, ‘Should Wales leave the UK?’ Patrick Connellan gives his take on Welsh independence, class struggle and socialism
Issue 2843
Independent Nation—should Wales leave the UK? Will Hayward. book cover

Independent Nation—should Wales leave the UK? Will Hayward

The reformist left in Wales is often confused and paralysed by two issues. The first is how to react to the Welsh Labour government, which routinely implements devastating cuts to public services.

It steadfastly refuses to improve wages for workers in the sectors it controls. The latest example was well below-inflation pay offer for ambulance workers. 

Yet, many on the reformist left will let Welsh Labour off the hook, saying, “At least it’s better than England.” Sure, we still have free prescriptions, but nothing has fundamentally improved for workers in Wales. They’re facing a severe cost of living crisis and public services that simply don’t deliver basic needs.

In fact, things have got demonstrably worse. In his surprisingly readable book Independent Nation, Will Hayward lays bare the profound inequality and poverty found in Wales. The figures are shocking.

One in four people in Wales live in poverty. That’s 700,000 people in a population of 3.1 million. One in three children live in poverty with 14 percent of children living in extreme poverty. Wales has the lowest pay in Britain in every sector, the worst rail and road infrastructure, and some of the poorest regions in the UK.

It can be easy to view poverty in Wales mainly associated with the former coal fields of the South Wales Valleys. And, though the issue is significant there, it is by no means the only affected area. Rural parts of the country have large pockets of deprivation, including North and West Walian coastal towns.

I live in Pembroke Dock, in the tourist destination of Pembrokeshire. The average household income here is just £23,500. It is no wonder that some people look towards independence as a solution, however illusory that may be.

This is the second issue that confuses the Welsh reformist left—independence. Despite Welsh Labour being tightly tied to unionism, significant sections of the reformist left are looking towards the independence movement as a way forward out of Wales’s problems.

Support for independence is now polling around 30 percent, and significantly higher in those under 30. Of 16 to 24-year olds, 40 percent said they would vote Yes in a referendum on Welsh independence.

Around 10,000 joined a march for independence in Cardiff on 1 October 2022, organised by All Under One Banner Cymru and YesCymru. YesCymru has attracted a lot of young people who are very angry at the Tories, support for independence is a sort of angry scream against injustice and poverty.  

While the Welsh independence movement is growing, it nowhere near matches the Scottish independence movement in size or depth. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum saw tens of thousands of working class people support independence as a revolt against Tory austerity. Many broke from the Labour Party and looked to the Scottish National Party (SNP).

In telling interviews with people from Porth in the Valleys, Hayward asks what they thought about Welsh independence. Overwhelmingly, most people did not see how Welsh independence would make their lives better. They spoke about a lack of opportunities, high level costs, low levels of meaningful or secure employment, poor transport links and a declining town.

The Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, has sometimes gained working class support due to discontent with Welsh Labour. But it has nowhere near supplanted Labour—and, in fact, gone backwards in recent years. Plaid lost its only seat in the South Wales Valleys in 2021 Welsh Senedd elections, despite Leanne Wood being a left winger. Most working class people just don’t see how Plaid can improve their lives, and independence seems like a far off “nice idea”.

Hayward spends much of his book looking in detail at what independence would mean for Welsh politics and the economy. But there are limitations to Hayward’s premise—a choice between independence and greater devolution.

But independence itself would not deal with the social problems that people spoke to in Porth. They flow from class, not national, divisions—and not all Welsh people have the same class interests.

In 2021. PCS union members at the Swansea DVLA agency struck during the pandemic for safer working conditions and the right to work from home. The Department of Transport, then led by the odious Tory minister Grant Shapps, insisted that workers continue to go into work despite 600 Covid cases and one Covid related death.

Would those workers have fared any better in an independent, capitalist Wales? The answer probably lies in how the Welsh government treated workers during the pandemic. Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour government acted more quickly than Boris Johnson in putting a “fire break” in place to stall the spread of Covid in November 2020.

But deaths per 100,000 people from Covid in England and Wales were the highest in Europe, along with Sweden where there were only voluntary lock-downs. The regions in England and Wales with the highest number of deaths were Rhondda Cynon Taff, followed by Merthyr Tydfil.

Like the DVLA, many workplaces remained open in Wales during the pandemic. The luxury car maker, Aston Martin, kept their factory open near Barry in south Wales for most of the pandemic. It has become a bit of a myth that the Welsh government performed much better than Johnson in dealing with the pandemic.

What should the revolutionary socialist position on Welsh independence be? Our starting point is always, “What are the interests of the working class as a whole?”

So, I think the revolutionary socialist position is to support independence for Wales because it would weaken the British state. If the British state and ruling class suffered a blow, it could help to strengthen class struggle against those at the top of society and not just in Wales.

But, for now, socialists’ priority is to do all that we can to make the wave of strikes across Britain successful. We have to raise the arguments in favour of escalation and coordination. And it means pushing against the Labour government shoddy deals and union leaders suspending action as they look to settle in Wales.

Socialists have to raise wider politics within the strikes—for example, solidarity with refugees or support for trans rights to fight divide and rule. At present, championing Welsh independence on the picket lines is too abstract and isn’t going to strengthen working class struggle.

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