Whatever else we might think about politics at the moment, it isn’t dull. Just in the last few days, we have seen two (related) announcements with potentially momentous implications for the future of the UK and the people of these islands: the news on the imminent triggering by the UK Government of Article 50, and Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on a possible second Scottish independence referendum.
Among the questions that have been asked of me in recent days have been a number related to the Scottish First Minister’s statement, and its relevance for Wales. I’ll try, in this blog post, to address some of the main issues that people have raised.
First, a number of people have asked me about support for independence in Wales. As I have discussed at various times on the blog in the past, the general picture has consistently been one of very limited support. The precise level of support reported can vary from poll to poll, but it also varies according to the type of question that is asked. Thus, when people ask me (as a number have done recently) “how much support is there for independence in Wales”, I’m afraid I have to resort sometimes to the standard academic response of suggesting that the question is too simple.
If we give people several constitutional options for Wales to choose from then we generally see support for independence at or below ten percent. In the most recent such poll, that conducted by ICM for BBC Wales, then six percent of respondents favoured the independence option – an entirely typical level of support. If, however, we ask about independence directly, in some form of Yes/No choice, then the proportion of respondents who choose independence is rather higher. But it is still very much a minority taste – in the most recent Welsh poll of which I am aware (see here and here) in which such a question was asked, even on this straight binary choice, support for Welsh independence was still well below twenty percent.
While it would be interesting to see if opinion has shifted on this latter form of question, or on the issue of Welsh independence more generally, there is as yet no solid evidence of it having done so since the Brexit referendum.
Second, another matter that several people have asked me about is support in Wales for Scottish independence. This is not a question that has been asked frequently, and not – as far as I am aware – recently. The most recent data that I am aware of dates back to just after the Scottish independence referendum. This showed very limited support for Scottish independence in Wales.
Third, I have also been asked about whether support for Welsh independence would change significantly in the event that Scotland voted for independence in a referendum. I think the most important thing to say here is that asking about such matters in any survey is difficult: you are asking respondents, most of whom are not political obsessives, to make a huge leap of the imagination into a hypothetical future scenario. I’m not at all confident that we can take too seriously the responses that we get to any such question. However, where polls have asked about this in Wales (e.g. here), the response has been that it doesn’t seem to change attitudes in Wales very much at all. Most people in Wales do not want Scotland to leave the UK. But if Scotland does do so, that doesn’t appear to change many people’s minds about whether Wales should follow a similar path. This may mean simply that looking forward to a scenario in which the UK as we know it no longer exists is too big an ‘ask’ for most survey respondents. Or it could reflect something deeper – that for most Welsh people the union that really matters to them is the ‘M4 union’ between Wales and England.
Wales is in a very different place from Scotland in terms of the constitutional debate. This is emphatically not to say that things in Wales are either static or dull. Indeed, in many ways Wales has been through the most interesting devolution journey since the 1990s of any of the three devolved nations. There have been a series of models of Welsh devolution – though some might view them as a set of bodged jobs – and almost the only constant has been change. Devolved Wales was definitely not, as Lady Gaga might put it, born this way. In less than two decades since the Assembly was created, Wales has acquired substantial primary law-making powers, is now developing significant taxation and borrowing powers, and in the latest iteration has moved from a conferred to a reserved powers model of devolution. This is not small stuff.
Just as Gigi Hadid is, so I am informed, International Model of the Year, this year’s model of Welsh devolution is the one incorporated in the 2017 Wales Act. Very few outside observers expect the latter to be remotely enduring or sustainable – indeed, if it outlasts the career of the estimable Ms Hadid it may exceed many expectations. Yet amidst all this flux, one thing that has been stable for pretty much a decade and a half has been public attitudes. All polls and surveys throughout that period have shown limited support for independence; they have also shown only modestly higher support for abolition of the Assembly. The normal picture, evident in just about all polls since early in the century, has been a clear majority in favour of some autonomy within the UK. Within that, most polls show a rather greater number favouring ‘more powers’ than support either the status quo or more limited devolution. And, curiously, support for ‘more powers’ has largely remained stable even as the powers of the Assembly have been changed and, generally, increased substantially. Whatever powers the Assembly actually has, plenty of people in Wales seem to support more.
This raises questions about how much people understand what powers actually are devolved in Wales. But that is another whole set of questions – which I have discussed at various points on the blog, and will do so again, doubtless, in the future.