Wales’ independence is an opportunity to rethink everything. In his widely praised speech delivered at the independence march in Merthyr Tudful, Eddie Butler called independence a blank canvas. A referendum will no doubt be the means by which we become independent but we shouldn’t let our vision be limited by that horizon.
After the march, Undod organised an informal event on radical independence. We lined up some opening contributions to get the conversation going but the intention of the event was to take the excitement of the march and channel it into some truly radical thinking. The room was packed almost as tightly as the trains earlier that day!
Many things were discussed, from community organising in north Wales to the democratic confederalism of northeast Syria. We discussed where the power over Wales lies and where it could lie. Independence would wrestle back power from London but can we expect to be much better off if we simply relocate it to Cardiff?
Some people argue that the heart of political power in Wales should be moved somewhere more central, perhaps Aberystwyth or Machynlleth. But does Wales even need a capital city? This simple question was put forward by Elin Hywel who had just delivered a fantastic summary of the work of Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog and its relevance for the indy movement. The people of Blaenau Ffestiniog know more than most what it is like to be forgotten by a capital city – whether that be London or Cardiff.
We are so locked into certain ways of thinking about what a country, a nation, a state must be. Our imagination, even within a movement as threatening to the status quo as ours, can be easily limited by these horizons. International politics provides certain limiting factors but within the borders of the Wales we will create our imaginations can and should run wild.
A capital city is a central node of power. It is usually where a parliament meets. It tends to be the most economically important city of a nation and is very likely culturally dominant. It is often where the best universities are, where the most influential news organisations sit, and where trendsetting think tanks go for intellectual capital. The capital is often where much of the money is. And in countries where the capital is not the richest or largest city, such as Turkey or Australia, the capital is still often of central importance to the political life of the nation. When we read about a nation it is often referred to by the name of its capital alone: “Tensions are on the rise between Tehran and Washington”, “Moscow continues to court Istanbul”.
Capitals have not always existed and we have no reason to believe they will always exist. (Nation states themselves are a novel concept in the grand scheme of things.) Some of the earliest empires had capital cities but these were the exception not the rule for the majority of humanity which lived a much more localised existence. The centralising tendencies of modernity and capitalism necessitate capital cities and the behemoths of the business class and government bureaucracies which justify their continued existence.
The question “Does Wales even need a capital city?” is such a radical one because it forces us to question some of our most fundamental assumptions about what a nation needs to be. Do we want a Wales where political power is so reliant in one city? London doesn’t know what is best for Blaenau Ffestiniog or Swansea or Rhyl – and neither does Cardiff. One of the primary complaints people have about the government is that it is distant, remote and doesn’t care about local needs and aspirations.
What if we used the blank slate of independence to reimagine what our democracy can be and re-centred the primary site of political life in our communities? What if we set up democratic assemblies in every town, every neighbourhood, and made those the primary limbs of democracy? People living in a community know what is best for that community.
This need not be a retreat into local tribalism. Quite the opposite. By respecting local autonomy we could collaborate on more equal terms. Local assemblies could confederate up to the town, city, regional and national level to work on infrastructure projects, foreign policy, coordinate national domestic policy and pool resources to lift up poorer areas. Wales is often referred to as a “community of communities”. Our politics should reflect that. There is even an argument to be made that the last century or two of incredibly centralised political power in Wales is alien to the broader political life of our nation.
Such ideas are difficult to parse when our only experience of politics is the centralised, barely-democratic nation states of today. Democracies like this have been attempted with much success for example, in northeast Syria and Barcelona. Independence offers Wales a unique opportunity to try something fundamentally different, much more centered on the lives of local people, not remote capital cities. Our movement could build upon projects like Cwmni Bro and take inspiration from worldwide democratic movements to plant the seeds of a new Wales long before we get that independence poll. We can begin to act independently sooner than we think.
I am not even entirely made up in my own mind if the future Wales I would like to see would require a capital city. But simply questioning such an assumption is exciting and necessary. Right now, more than ever, we need to be thinking big. If we can develop a compelling vision of an independent Wales then it will be all the more easier to fight for. And all the better when we win it. The independence movement must be so much more than a referendum producing machine.
Try it for yourself, question the unquestionable. Explore the questions which might at first seem unthinkable. This is what our movement needs. This is what so many of us felt during our long and invigorating discussion in Merthyr after the march. Now is the time for thinking big.