February 2, 2012


Could Wales leave the United Kingdom?: Talk of independence is growing - and the referendum in Scotland in 2014 is eagerly awaited. But could Wales really break free from England - and stand on its own? (John Harris, 2/01/12, guardian.co.uk)

As if to underline the idea that politics in Wales defies the staid norms of Westminster, both front-runners in the Plaid leadership contest are women. Wood's closest rival is 45-year-old Elin Jones from west Wales, whose odds of winning are currently put at evens. She is a much more strait-laced presence, but is equally convinced that the next few years could jump-start the case for Welsh independence. "If Scotland becomes an independent country, the UK ceases to exist," she tells me. "You get a combination of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Now, is that a country? Well, no, it's definitely not a country. Is it a state? It's so imbalanced that you couldn't make it up if you were starting from scratch. All that calls into question a huge number of issues about the future of what might be left, post-2014.

"I've said quite clearly that over the next 12 months I want to see us define a route map for independence in Wales," she says. "Two consecutive Plaid Cymru victories in an election could trigger an independence referendum. That could happen as early as 2020."

This, undoubtedly, is over-excited talk - but if you buy the idea that the UK is fracturing, and that Alex Salmond's success may not represent the only proof, there is still a specific Welsh story to tell. It may not point to independence - nor, given that large swaths of Wales remain firmly dominated by Labour, mean any huge advance for Plaid Cymru. But it says a lot about the increasingly separate journeys taken by Wales, Scotland and England, and the hugely uncertain future the UK now faces.

Not that many English people have been paying much attention, but since the late 1990s, devolution has inevitably created a specific and self-contained Welsh politics. Last year, a referendum granted the Welsh government full law-making powers in 20 fundamental areas, from health to transport, and an official commission is now looking at extending devolution yet further. On arriving here, you only need glance at the Western Mail to get an instant sense of a different reality: on the day I visit, the front page is taken up by stories about the Cardiff-produced Doctor Who, and the Welsh soccer star Craig Bellamy, along with the injured rugby internationals Dan Lydiate, Gethin Jenkins and Rhys Priestland, and Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones's latest attack on the coalition in London. "Dragging Wales to edge of double-dip recession," says the splash. "First minister hits out at UK government."

Big policy differences between Cardiff and Westminster extend into the distance. There are no Sats tests in Welsh schools, and until they are seven, children in primary education follow a "foundation phase" based on ideas from Finland and Italy, and built around "play and active involvement rather than completing exercises in books". Prescriptions are free, and the Welsh NHS will be unaffected by Andrew Lansley's market-based revolution. When the coalition in London raised tuition fees to £9,000, the government in Cardiff guaranteed to meet the cost of the increase for any student who lives in Wales. As with Scotland, there is a sharp sense of a shared politics well to the left of what prevails in England: I lived in Wales between 2004 and 2009, and though its brand of Celtic social democracy is far from perfect, there's a palpable sense of a society run along kinder, more communitarian ideas than those that hold sway to the east.

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Posted by at February 2, 2012 6:34 AM

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