You’ve heard it by now: some posh wanker has asked the Queen to suspend the Westminster parliament to push through a no deal Brexit. Even Philip Hammond is calling Boris’ move undemocratic. The UK is on fire, once again. Or rather it continues to be on fire but some Etonian has pissed petrol onto the flames.
And Wales weeps. The expected nationalist responses have surfaced. Adam Price’s first comment on the constitutional crisis was to reiterate his commitment to an independent Wales. Even Carwyn Jones took the opportunity to threaten that this could be the beginning of the end for the United Kingdom.
If you’re reading this blog you likely know all the usual arguments: Westminster doesn’t represent Wales; power in the UK is concentrated in London and southeast England; independence will mean we can Take Back Control™ of Wales’ affairs and run them better than Boris’ Boys; etc. etc.; throw in something about how much water we export.
So we in the indy movement have agreed we’d rather the people of Wales run Wales. What next then?
One assumption is that we will get independence by marching towards a referendum and then winning it. When we get there, the party that has managed to secure the referendum will then decide the terms of Wales’ independence. Plaid Cymru – the only pro-indy party with any elected politicians – seem like the only candidate for that job right now.
The prospect of an indy referendum is still very far away but one can’t help but get a bit of déjà vu already; a referendum predicated on a seemingly simple question. ‘No’ to Wales’ independence would be simple enough: keep the status quo (Westminster would retain its power over Wales). But what would a ‘yes’ mean?
The trajectory of Brexit should give us a pit in our stomach at the thought that we are leaving this detail for the distant future. Not that there have been no fleshed out ideas on what an independent Wales could look like but that we do not have a coherent image that can serve as the basis of a more effective independence campaign. We’re all marching for independence but what are we actually marching for. Basically the same system but with Cardiff Bay being the centre of power rather than Westminster? Or something radically different?
The lesson of the Brexit referendum is that we’re opening up the democratic process to huge abuse if we do not more strictly define the terms of a referendum. Right now Boris is using the votes of 52% of those who voted in the EU referendum to justify his own vision of No Deal. But 52% of those people didn’t vote for no deal, of course.
Fast forward to a successful indy Wales referendum and how might we be similarly taken for a ride? Maybe Plaid will lead the charge and, at the last second, tell us that we need to become a tax shelter like Ireland if we’re going to be successfully independent. Cool, property prices and rents will skyrocket in Cardiff to the levels of Dublin and the government will bend over backwards to accommodate billionaires from Silicon Valley. That’s not the independence you wanted? Ah, well, you see, it’s just respecting the result of the referendum. Or maybe someone else will be holding the reins when Wales goes independent. What other country could we find ourselves in? Maybe it will be a Corbynite socialist set-up or it could be a far-right Identitarian ethno-state.
We need to begin defining right now what we want an independent Wales to be. The indy movement has been fantastic in that it has mobilised thousands and thousands of regular people to demand a different Wales. Those same people need to be the ones articulating that vision. Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government might run a public consultation here, a citizens’ assembly there, but that simply isn’t enough. We need real democracy, the likes of which we’re never had on this soggy island.
Independence is a chance for something radically different. We can try to create a Wales where the sort of maneuvering Boris has carried out today simply isn’t possible. And by that I don’t just mean hoping that Plaid Cymru will write us a shiny new constitution when we go independent. Think bigger.
In Barcelona a network of neighbourhood assemblies got the housing activist Ada Colau elected as mayor. Policies were decided by people living in the neighbourhoods of the city, both using online tools and in regular face-to-face assemblies. The voices of women and minorities were lifted up, attempting to offset their historical sidelining by stale political elites. Housing evictions were stopped and political power was transferred to the street level. The process of reform under Colau is still ongoing (and not without its mistakes), but the project she has been merely the face of has been a radical break with the old powers who ran the city.
In Rojava, northeast Syria, in the vacuum of the Syrian civil war, communities have instituted a comparable program of “democratic confederalism“, re-centering political power at the local level. The level of neighbourhoods and streets. Assemblies made up of normal people (with female representation guaranteed at all levels through a co-chairing system) decide what will happen in their communities. Those assemblies talk to other assemblies and together they form a radically democratic, distributed government for the region. Ethnic and religious minorities work side by side in a region of the world too often associated with sectarian conflict.
These are two examples from the worldwide municipalist movement which has been rapidly growing over the past decade. The basic premise is: the primary site of democracy should be the local community. For Wales that means neither Westminster nor Cardiff Bay. Democracy should be so much more than voting a few times every decade for a few representatives you’ll probably never meet. This sort of disconnect is how we end up in the political quagmire we’re currently drowning in.
The latest chapter in the Brexit crisis is fundamentally one of democracy. Boris has too much power and he is now blatantly abusing it. But this is not merely an issue of having the wrong person in power: it is an issue of power itself. In a now deleted post a Twitter user was urging people angry at Boris’ decision to send letters to the Queen. Right now sending letters to the Queen honestly feels like one of the best options open to normal people. Something is very badly broken.
But the truth is our democracy was never not broken. Suffrage may have been expanded over the years but our political representation has always been distant and irrelevant to most people’s lives. Wales’ independence is a chance to change that. But only if we shape the independence movement into something truly radical. We can’t wait for Plaid Cymru to work out the details. We need to work this out for ourselves and then get out and fight for it.
To be independent we need to start acting independently. We can’t wait for a different leader to hand down a plan they’ve developed behind closed doors. A Wales municipalist movement would have to be years in the making but it is possible. We have a political vacuum in Wales. If we don’t fill it someone else will.