The i-Word

The first ministers of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland gathered in Edinburgh this week to call on the UK Government to support their “progress agenda” – but where is it progressing?

Their joint statement called for “financial, constitutional and policy reform” but the countdown for a referendum on Scottish independence is ticking loudly.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond is still aglow with electoral glory after he led the SNP to a historic majority in last month’s elections. Not for him piddling coalitions or trifling stability pacts; like a vintage-era Maradona he has the proven ability to set a goal and score.

Northern Ireland effectively has two first ministers, and nominal deputy Martin McGuinness likes the word “independence” very much. Sinn Fein strategists are undoubtedly envisaging with glee how the Scottish debate on independence – never mind a Yes vote – will encourage people to consider a future for these islands in which the UK no longer exists.

Last month’s Ipsos Mori research found just 36% of UK respondents think Scotland will never be independent.

Meanwhile, the UK Government is committed to reducing the number of Welsh MPs by a quarter and will shortly launch a commission on whether they should be able to vote on English-only matters; as the Treasury-imposed cuts bite, we can expect the Welsh Government to fight harder for major changes to the funding formula used to allocate it cash.

These tensions mean that when David Cameron sits down with the heads of government of the UK nations at the forthcoming joint-ministerial committee he will be in danger of looking like the First Minister of England rather than the PM of a contented UK. In little more than a decade, devolution has put the leaders of pro-secession parties into power and pressed a giant question mark across the UK.

The leaders of Labour and Plaid Cymru face a headache at this time. Talk about independence will only intensify in the next couple of years and increasing vocal English voices may also argue the union is an expensive hangover from days of empire. The issue is not going to go away.

Will Carwyn Jones give his beleaguered Scottish Labour colleagues a crash course in how to win elections and beat nationalists and thus become the de facto Celtic poster boy for left-leaning unionism? And will Plaid Cymru – which launched an “independence initiative” in 2009 but subsequently muffled use of the i-word – decide that ambiguity and equivocation are unlikely to win at the polls and instead embrace with gusto the agenda of their Scottish compatriots?

This is a debate Wales cannot sit out.

A Thursday column

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